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Tuesday, January 02, 2018

20's-Era Peacetime Warriors

The Cock-Eyed World (1929) Is An Early-Talking Shell Burst

Picture Play was typical of fan magazines, being one of a bushel that ranged in cost from a dime to upwards of a quarter. Most content revolved round life of the stars and studios, while columnists gave action account of specials opening along the Main Stem. One that made history in summer 1929 was The Cock-Eyed World, which struck Fox’s Roxy like a comet and did “a new world’s peak intake for a motion picture” (Film Daily). This was money likes of which no one in the industry had seen before, attendance records fallen like ninepins off a perfect strike. Picture Play’s “The Bystander” wrote of joining lines for a week’s vain effort at seeing The Cock-Eyed World. She'd finally faint of hunger and be taken to the Roxy’s “hospital quarters” (yes, they had such a facility, fully staffed). The columnist then snuck off a recovery bed and into the auditorium, where at last the coveted smash was hers to enjoy. I report this extreme in hopes of being believed, inasmuch as I rely on account from a periodical that trafficked regular in hyperbole. Truth not to be doubted is massive hit that was The Cock-Eyed World, it stranger than fiction because few of even dedicated buffs know the film today, let alone have seen it. Opportunity is at hand to put that right, for The Cock-Eyed World streams at Amazon, Vudu, and You Tube, a Fox bouquet to what few are stalwart enough to give two hours and three or five dollars to experience this most fascinating of early talk relics. I’ve viewed twice, lost part of a first try to sleep, but emerge in full conviction that here is possibly the top-kick of peacetime service shows, a classic to be sought and savored.

How much in demand is general ribaldry smattered with dirty jokes? It must still pay, for look at glut of R-rated comedies  among us. The Cock-Eyed World was a most inside peek to barracks yet made. And unlike What Price Glory?, to which it was a sequel, this one talked. In fact, The Cock-Eyed World may be the loudest feature that came out in 1929. There’s little contact with enemies because most of combat goes on between enlistees Flagg and Quirt, names we’d know as well as family members given backtrack of almost a century. There was no war on, but then again, as Victor McLaglen tells it, there’s always a war someplace, with the US invariably horning in. To Sgt. Vic’s (as Flagg) reckoning, “big business” is behind every shot fired, wherever a site of struggle, for those same monied interests are supplying munitions for whoever pays, making war a non-stop engine to which we must stay committed. Flagg gives no complaint; he’ll take this world of men under arms as he finds it, and never mind politics as to particulars. He and Edmund Lowe’s Sgt. Quirt are in for the scrap, the no-place-for-long, and women served the same way. How much of soldiering was conducted by a same code, and how much still? Flagg and Quirt know immorality of war too well, certainly enough to realize futility of resisting it.

Director Raoul Walsh was ideal for The Cock-Eyed World, being a straight-ahead man whatever a changing world around him. He’d do a photo-finish on Flagg-Quirt attitude as late as Marines, Let’s Go! in the 60’s, a show so retro that an appalled Jack Kennedy said No! to Walsh helming PT 109, a to-come account of JFK’s war service over which he reserved some rights of approval. Walsh may have passed best-if-served-by status, but in 1929 and perfect timing that was The Cock-Eyed World, he held by far a truest wand to tell what a mass mob wanted. You had to know someone was doing something spectacularly right when theatres accustomed to closing by eleven were staying lit for two more shows after midnight to which every seat was filled (ask Milwaukee’s Strand Theatre management). Walsh stages much of The Cock-Eyed World like insides of a brothel. Lili Damita is the tropic noise who somehow has her dress hiked up in every scene played, her among “mamas” the troop preys on from Russian snows, back to New York with stops at Coney Island, then to Santiago where natives are killed off for no reason other than Flagg-Quirt being told by faceless authority to go and kill them off. For Walsh, it is the going and the whoring and the killing that are the stories worth telling --- all the rest can “shove off” as a blunt end title instructs us to do (yes, instead of “The End,” The Cock-Eyed World says “That’s All – Shove Off.” Is it a wonder people loved this film?)

Sgt. Flagg On The Wire For a Date --- He Doesn't Care With Whom

Flagg/McLaglen points to bombing planes at one point and shouts, “Up there is where the next war will be!,” his notice to us of coming air supremacy plus implements built to “kill, wound, maim, and destroy.” The Cock-Eyed World is a litany of bawdy conversation overheard and smutty jokes told against bacon-frying Movietone track of a primitive day, Fox’s process keen for synchronization, but noisy with impurities common to recording dialogue on film. That may actually have enhanced roughhewn romp this was. Everyone paying ways in, or ones collecting those admissions and trying to keep sound equipment off the fritz, knew talk for cock-eyed transition it was, and would remain so, until kinks were ironed out. In a meanwhile, The Cock-Eyed World was yards ahead of most early talkers, however leisurely we find it today. Exhibitor’s Herald World lauded the “bawdy humor” as something a public wanted, calling their embrace “a perfectly normal and healthy instinct,” not unlike “fancy stories” told “around a locker room.” The Cock-Eyed World should be better known and higher regarded for the priceless glimpse it gives of fighting men where wars were chased from port to port, slivers of history hardly a footnote now. The Cock-Eyed World isn’t available on DVD, but is well worth seek-out on streaming options.

How Many Director's Photos Got Into Ads?
A Show For You, Boys! was siren call from showmen to conventioneers out for rowdy good times. "Hot Mamas and Hot Soldiers" were right up alley of American Legionnaires in town for their annual convention, Strand ads above emphasizing male appeal of  The Cock-Eyed World. The Roxy had led winking ways, their historic success an endorsement for The Cock-Eyed World as nerviest of so-far talkies. If "precode" had a beginning, or roots, or whatever, this may have been it, at least from merchandising standpoint. The Roxy had seen average weekly business rise from $102,411.00 in 1928 to $107,302.91 in 1929. The Cock-Eyed World took $173,391.00 for a first week, with even more the following frame. At the end of four weeks, it had surpassed $650K, which was very near the film's negative cost of $661K, in one theatre. Nothing else the Roxy ran during 1929 came close to this.  Ads shown here illustrate the phenomenon, each played to the film's randy strengths. Note particularly the one at left celebrating Raoul Walsh for having directed "with such force and vitality that the screen seems alive," his the participation most responsible for The Cock-Eyed World's success. This one surely made Walsh cock-of-the-walk at Fox. Small wonder he was entrusted with epic that would be The Big Trail. There were sequels to The Cock-Eyed World, a first losing money (Women Of All Nations), then another that squeaked by (Hot Pepper). The Cock-Eyed World is a must for early talk explorers, Walsh devotees, and seekers after raunch as screens then dared, but seldom would in decades to come.

Much more Raoul Walsh at Greenbriar Archive: The King and Four Queens, The Tall Men, Background To Danger, The World In His Arms, Desperate Journey, Me and My Gal, The Naked and The Dead, War-Torn Flynn Teams With Walsh, The Big Trail, White Heat, They Drive By Night, Big Brown Eyes, and A Distant Trumpet.


Blogger Matthew Clark said...

In the early 1990s, while living in LA, I caught this film on television one saturday afternoon. For a few weeks, one of the local stations had weekly airings of an early talkie from the Fox Studios. Along with this film, they showed "Just Imagine" (1930) and "Sunnyside Up"(1929). You'd have thought it was a weekly El Brendel theater.
I went into this film with no idea what it was, until I heard the names of the two main characters, and recognised it as a sequel to "What Price Glory". I had seen the John Ford remake on television years before and knew that Glory was infamous for the bad language that viewers could easily tell the actors in this silent film were using. I was struck by how the film had scenes set during both the American invasion of Russia after WWI, and the actions taken in Central America. I did find it very slow. But to hear how popular it was, and remembering the subject matter, I agree that this film deserves to be better remembered than it is. Most histories of the early talkie era will just slide past this film.
I can only think of one other "20s-Era Peacetime Warriors" film and that would be the Lon Chaney 1926 feature "Tell It To The Marines". Which features a lot of sequences filmed on board the USS California, one of the battle ships sunk at Pearl Harbour.

2:57 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Good points, Matthew. THE COCK-EYED WORLD does meander, but is rich in little details to sift through, including some very creative use of sound. And it is a cousin to Chaney's service film, as you mentioned. Interesting how the 30's "peacetime" films avoided our being involved in other country conflicts --- maybe the Code had small-print advisory against that ...

6:01 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

I find Matthew's comments about a local station airing early Fox films in the 90's interesting. Circa 1974, the late film enthusiast (and collector) Jerry Haber convinced the Hartford CT CBS affiliate he was working for to air a Sunday night program called 'Cinema Club.' He cherry picked then-hard-to-see antiquities from several sources for a selection including COCK EYED WORLD and all the Fox titles Matthew mentioned as well as the F. March DR JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, CALL HER SAVAGE, SHOW BOAT, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS and many more. I think there were a few Warners and RKO things in there too. I seem to recall the show was actually popular, received much good press, but the plug was pulled due to the expense of seeking out prints/rights from so many different sources.

Keep in mind, in the early 70's we were just getting into the Norman Lear era of prime time TV, so when I watched COCK EYED WORLD for the first time, hearing the risque stuff on television, no matter how dated, was pretty novel. Even a line like the 'lay of the land' joke seemed kinda spicy for a local show. Have not seen the film in many years, will have to revisit.

12:09 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

You should try to convince Fernando Martín Peña, whose show "Filmoteca" that comes from a broadcasting station (not cable, not pay per view), air the movies you want to see. This is because now it is much easier to see the streaming signal of the channel for free, even though the show is currently on brake due to vacations up until either March or April.

2:03 PM  
Blogger Matthew Clark said...

I see that Cock Eyed World is available to stream from youtube for a few dollars, and the follow up film Women Of All Nations is available for free, but in five parts. There are a couple of scenes from Cock Eyed available to watch for free, also on youtube. One has Flagg and Quirt's company(?) receiving orders to leave Russia for the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I'm surprised to see the CO is played by Charles Waldron, who played General Sternwood in Hawk's The Big Sleep in 1946. Is it the same character? Or was this a deliberate call back by Hawks knowing that audiences would remember this earlier series? And when McLaglan is addressing the troops in this same scene, it is right out of the Ford Cavalry Movies from 10 years later. Again is there a call back?
I'm wondering if this series had the kind of impact on audiences of the time that they would still remember it long afterwards? This is a four film series, starting at the end of the silent era, with McLaglan and Lowe in the lead, and then going on through the early sound/pre code era. The first film was remade by Ford in his post war period right after The Quiet Man. And Michael Todd cast both McLaglan and Lowe in a cameo appearance together in Around The World In Eighty Days in 1956, as if to recall their earlier series. They're on board the ship Fogg is using to cross the Atlantic in the later part of the film.
I'm sure that Waldron's role as General Sternwood could have easily been played by many other actors, like H.B. Warner, and Waldron could have just been the actor available at the time. And, McLaglan is just doing his usual tough sargent schtick, as he did in Gunga Din and Wee Willie Winkie. But, still, it appears that this series was very popular with movie goers in its day. And, certainly this Flagg and Quirt series needs to be restored. As does the whole early sound period needs to be reevaluated.
Also, this type of servicemen's drama predates the type of war dramas we are familiar with that came out during and after WWII. Which were influenced by John Ford's The Lost Patrol (1934). Which also starred Victor McLaglan. These 1940s films, as well as the Ford movie focused more on the psyche of the different soldiers rather than just how they deal with the world around them.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

Thanks for the heads up...had no idea this was available for streaming.

I notice its on iTunes, along with some other low profile Fox talkies like "The Bowery" and "Sailors Luck." Maybe Blood Money, Just Imagine, and Sunny Side Up will find their way out of the vaults soon.

4:31 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I realize tastes in humor change over time, but why did anyone think El Brendel was funny even in 1929?

9:45 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

In a Fox Film world of the early 30's, there is no escaping El Brendel.

5:00 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Long after his A movie days, El Brendel remained preposterously popular in Northern Minnesota. Yeah, I know. The guy wasn't really Swedish, the accent wasn't real and I'm pretty sure the audience knew that. But I have researched many newspaper ads from the 1940's promoting his Columbia shorts (yes, the COLUMBIA shorts!) like they were second features! Not just the ads, but there would be little editorial p.r. plugs when a new two reeler was booked. Really!

It seems crazy to us now, but dialect humor was a pretty big deal in the first half of the twentieth century.

9:40 AM  
Blogger lmshah said...

El Brendel was also popular in nightclubs and personal appearances throughout the 30's. 40's and 50's, however much modern film buffs want to hate him, and I don't join that crowd, he was a well-liked performer who did very well for himself financially and was far from broke when he died.


11:20 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I was stunned to discover a character clearly based on --
make that ripped-off from -- Brendel's onscreen persona in "Casual Company", a novel written by Ed Wood. As I think of it, maybe "stunned" is a gross exaggeration. Perhaps "not really all that surprised" would be more accurate.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

Jerry, I also saw "Cock-Eyed World'' on WFSB's "Cinema Club 3,'' which ran from April 1974 to January 1975. That just happened to be during the three years I lived in Hartford. I've been researching old TV listings and they had things like "Roberta'' and the 1936 "Showboat'' years before they appeared on New York City stations.

9:10 PM  
Blogger Matthew Clark said...

I don't quite remember where I read this, but at some time in the late 1920s, or so, William Fox collapsed at work with a life threatening illness and needed an immediate blood transfusion. Of all the people working at the Fox Studio that day, only El Brendel had the same blood type as Fox. And thus saved Fox's life. It is speculated that either a grateful Fox rewarded Brendel by giving him work for the rest of his life. Or, Fox made sure the comic would always be available in case he needed another emergency blood transfusion, by making sure Brendel would always be working at his studio. Which could explain Brendel's long career?
Or, maybe, he just happen to be in Hollywood in that early sound period when having a unique voice could get you work?

2:15 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Very interesting stuff about CINEMA CLUB, Dave K. Jerry Haber was a good friend and a prolific collector of 16mm. He told me about working at several stations and occasionally getting to program classic titles.

And Matthew, that is a fascinating story about El Brendel and the blood transfusion for William Fox. I'll have to check the just-out bio of Fox and see if it's in there.

5:49 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Matthew, that blood transfusion explanation is as good as any to explain Brendel's ubiquitous appearances in Fox pictures. I wouldn't be surprised if Harry Cohn signed him to Columbia just to have a cheap blood supply for himself or his "classier" stars.

8:04 AM  
Blogger lmshah said...

You can scoff all you want, but the reason El Brendel was ubiquitous in early talkies was because he was POPULAR with audiences in early sound films, thanks to the film we're talking about here, as well as SUNNY SIDE UP, DELICIOUS, and the other successful Fox films he appeared in. He had been a popular stage performer with his wife Flo before he had come to films during the Silent Era, and continued as a successful supporting player in films post-Fox through the 30's, and he and Flo continued to make their primary income working personal appearances in theaters and nightclubs through the 40's and 50's. He slowed down in the 60's as his health declined, but he continued to make the occasional television appearance up to his death and died a very prosperous man.

That he does not fit the tastes of the generally cynical, tragically hip, and humorless film nerdship population today is the trend of changing tastes through time and certainly not his problem. Pity the poor historian trying to explain Adam Sandler's popularity to future generations, I couldn't explain it now.


10:27 PM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

They'll figure it out, at least because Sandler didn't (and doesn't) rely on a stupid exaggerated Swedish accent to get laughs, but can play characters with different ones (check out his role as an Israeli solider turned hairstylist in You Don't Mess With The Zohan)- El Brendel sounds like a white person version of Stephen Fetchit who makes fun of Swedes.

3:23 AM  

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