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Monday, October 29, 2018

Horror Or Not, It's Tough To See

Halloween Harvest 2018 --- The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934) Sees Rains Declare War On Atwill 

A rarity until MCA included it among 77 "Horror Greats," the rebranded Universal monster group made available for syndication in 1972 after Screen Gems' fifteen year lease had expired. MCA didn't have Columbia titles that salted the now-retired "Son Of Shock" package, but added most of "weirdies" dating from the 50's, plus The Man Who Reclaimed His Head, largely unseen till '72 even by ardent fans. The cast, plus mention here and there in monster mags, implied chills. Its title gave promise of a head gone truant from host body, plus there were names of horror pedigree to conjure with --- Claude Rains and Lionel Atwill at lead loggerheads. Certain films can frustrate for coming out of hibernation, only to disappear again, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head gone to us since local stations were done with it. I came across a boot ... no box, label, just a hand-scrawled title on a nondescript DVD. These tend to be wrecks quality-wise, mine quite watchable however, by sheer luck of the draw, with sepia tone that may have been inherent in the 16mm print from which the disc was dubbed. I knew going in that The Man Who Reclaimed His Head was no horror film, so took pleasure in players operating outside the genre, plus content well off beaten path of 30's melodrama.

The Man Who Reclaimed His Head proposes war as planned outcome of munitions manufacturers working in concert to pit countries against one another, Rains the pacifist writer who would expose them but for Atwill cunning which extends beyond politics to lust for Joan Bennett, dewy wife of CR and engine to propel be-head that both opens and closes the film. Latter was basis for selling of The Man Who Reclaimed His Head on chill terms. New York's premiere house of horrors the Rialto (ad at right) took a lead in this direction and other showmen followed --- "The Mind Of A Genius Transferred To A Monster," which doesn't make a lot of sense, even where applied to Head's plot situation. Rialto manager Arthur Mayer would have argued How Else to Promote It?, and indeed, how? The Man Who Reclaimed His Head on its own merit was too unknown a quantity, starting with that unwieldy title. Nuggets are here for the finding, though, like arms barons on a yacht mapping a next war and how they'll supply both sides, Atwill their de-facto chairman. Rains dispatching him is a good riddance, enough so for defense attorney Henry O' Neill to promise CR that "no jury" will hand down a conviction, a neat Code sidestep, being assurance that Rains won't answer for "reclaiming" the bad man's head.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Back When No Movie Was Meaningless

Government Girl (1943) Was Special To Someone

I'll go sentimental route today and mention a rare find among lobby cards, one I nearly failed to note, as who regards the "verso" of such a collectible where imagery is on the front side? Serious gatherers are as scrupulous to the back, for often it is tip-off to damage and/or restoration effort having been made. Rest assured that lobby cards are a sought-after modern art, many of us hooked on them from early age. This sample was response to my liking Government Girl, a Washington-based comedy with Olivia De Havilland and Sonny Tufts. Presumably funny in 1943, it is dated now as meat rationing and black market tires (GPS dealt with GG in July 2010). What moves me about the card is long-ago scrawl on its flip side, as in, "Note --- This lobby is in memory of my beloved Aunt Evelyn, when we saw this film at Warner's Hollywood Theatre, Hollywood Blvd., Calif." A number of the words are underlined, as here was precious memory for whoever wrote the inscription. Unusual was someone getting a lobby card for a keepsake --- these weren't supposed to be given or sold to patrons. Were Aunt Evelyn and her niece, or nephew, members of an exhibiting family? A Government Girl lobby card might otherwise have been tough to come by as those black market tires.

I'm convinced that most stars had little idea of what they meant to their public. Olivia De Havilland no doubt figured Government Girl for a slight vehicle, but what would she have said to such expression as this on the part of anonymous fans who memorialized their evening out to see a film so few are around to remember first-hand? Joan Crawford observed that screen players have less way of knowing what they mean to an audience because, unlike stage performers, they don't get immediate gratification of applause, being stood before cameras and an indifferent crew. Short of going out among viewership, and interaction with them (Crawford certainly did that), how would film players assess their value? It has been said that small towns were the last to forget a star, but how many stars ventured to small towns? I'm betting most from the Classic Era lived and died without realizing half their importance to an anonymous multitude who bought tickets and revered their work. The truly mass audience then was a thing almost beyond calculation now. "Stars" today scarcely warrant the name compared with what used to be. Never mind your TCM broadcast or Warner Archive disc, and imagine Government Girl at the Warner's Hollywood with 2,350 seats and as many laughing in them. Government Girl might have seemed like the funniest picture ever made in such an environment. I wonder how long this lobby card stayed in the family before they forgot Government Girl, Aunt Evelyn, and the reason why the outing meant so much. Such tribute for me turns an attractive representation of an obscure film into meaningful proof of what moviegoing once was to its public.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Where Drama Was Keener Felt

Melodrama Meant Much, and Why Not?

I've got this need to escape present time and show-go when it was immediate, and more so, communal. Laugh and the audience laughs with you, say many with regard comedy, but when melodrama played to crowds, it was mirth plus tears they shared, and gladly so. We lost that when everyone got smugly superior to performance, stage or screen, rather than surrendering to it. Do we at least cry where alone with a film that moves us? I wept at a recent and private sit through Now, Voyager, affected as much by WB craftsmanship, and Max Steiner music, as Bette Davis' romantic, then mean mom, travails. To blubber through a feature has cleansing value, the "good cry" called that for plenty good reason. People went to stage melodramas, and then nickelodeons, to let out emotion otherwise kept at bay. Now it seems we suppress at theatres and spill guts for venues more public and less appropriate (like social media, a too-oft indifferent, or harshly judging, host). At least there were darker places then to dab tears, or laugh uproariously, theatre-going a shared experience that still offered a kind of privacy. You were among a crowd, alone in your seat at least, and not penalized for feelings you'd experience.

I lately watched and gathered evidence from two otherwise unrelated features, The Old Fashioned Way and The Spiral Staircase. Both are period set (late 19/early 20th, century) and have segments where an audience sees drama on a hometown stage (The Old Fashioned Way), or on a screen hung in a hotel parlor for entertainment of guests (The Spiral Staircase). Each convey a sense of how such entertainment was received by patronage long past. How wonderful it must have been to take drama on face value and let yourself be swept away. An age of innocence, perhaps of naïveté, but a night at the show could truly be one to remember, with no shaming for edge-of-seat you sat, or tears you shed. Release of what was pent up was primary goal of entertainment then. Getting above such basics would cost us a lot. The Old Fashioned Way features a re-staging of The Drunkard, a play introduced in 1843 at one of P.T. Barnum's theatres. Almost a century later (1933), The Drunkard was revived in Los Angeles and became a sensation. Something very old had become preciously new again.

People went to see The Drunkard over and over. Traditional seating gave way to tables where food and drink could be enjoyed. Crowds were encouraged to applaud virtue and hiss villainy. This was antiquity that 1933 had progressed far beyond, or had it? The twist was customers arrived to jeer but developing instead a real affection for The Drunkard and its return to a simpler, if more genuine, era. Lots re-saw their youth, devoted fans John Barrymore, Mary Pickford, Boris Karloff, and especially W.C. Fields (he attended the play thirty times) not so far removed from a time when The Drunkard and others like it were less object of gentle ridicule than drama taken straight. Fields wanted to celebrate The Drunkard and so incorporated the show and much of its cast into a major segment of The Old Fashioned Way, his own rear-view to stock companies and itinerant roads they traveled. Fields starred as a huckster but one step ahead of sheriffs, or landladies done out of room fare. This was a way Fields knew, had lived, and clearly had great nostalgia for, The Old-Fashioned Way close as any project to The Great Man's heart. The Old-Fashioned Way is in some ways a feature expansion on ideas Fields had explored in The Fatal Glass Of Beer.

As third act highlight, The Drunkard is kidded, but not mocked. We know its time has passed, Fields not so blinded by sentiment as that, but he lets a recreated audience absorb The Drunkard on its own terms, responding in much the manner as mid-1850's viewers might have. They watch with rapt attention. A young couple find pleasure in not only the performance but the fact they are together watching it, a sweetly affecting moment. An elderly pair is even more caught up, the man's response to a tense moment causing his wife to warn, "Henry, remember your heart," that line done sincere and not to make fun of the two. A mother-love song inspires a son in the audience to look lovingly at the parent he has brought along. The Drunkard is received by this period audience as a thing authentic and moving, even as Fields the presenter invites us to laugh with, but not at, them. Here was theatre we are the poorer for having forfeited, The Drunkard and its audience a singular highlight of The Old Fashioned Way.

The Spiral Staircase makes a similar gesture, but with then-newer technology, that of motion pictures circa the early teens. A gathered group is watching a one-reel drama presented for townfolk and hotel guests, the projector hand-cranked in a dark room to piano accompany. The film they see is not identified, but it is The Sands Of Dee, directed by D.W. Griffith and released in 1912. The Spiral Staircase is set around a same period. For this audience, movies are exotic in themselves. They react to the film's tragedy with handkerchiefs twisted and eyes that mirror intensity on the screen. This is what I would like to think real nickelodeon patronage experienced. Imagine coming off the street for a five cent coin to emerge less than an hour later, wrung out from laughter, tears, often as not both. Of course the movies caught on. Naturally they swept competing entertainment to margins. Talkies finished the job of making film dominant. I suspect folks were fully invested in movies from the first one they saw, whether short, silent, or seen on a bed sheet. The Spiral Staircase does a beautiful job enacting what the fascination, and impact, was all about, even as the scene goes on and off within a minute, its purpose to portray characters oblivious to a murder committed on the floor above them. Consider it, then, a lovely pearl contained within generous oyster that is The Spiral Staircase (the feature GPS-visited here).

Saturday, October 20, 2018

As Rare As Roach Shorts Get

Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts Arrive On DVD

The Sprocket Vault, of previous humor finds like Charley Chase (Roach talkies) and Youngson's When Comedy Was King, has raided a deepest so-far tomb and brought back all of two-reelers with distaff team of Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts, most unseen, let alone in toto, since they were new. I've asked before, and hereby do again: Did anyone see these on TV? --- Ever? Not this viewer, whose Roach diet was Rascals and Laurel-Hardy only, despite there being so much more from HR's Fun Factory. These too will make way to DVD, but only if sales enable continued releasing. It's for that reason each need all of support a buff community can give, no act of charity for bargain this double-disc is, seventeen Todd-Pitts shorts for a mere twenty-five dollars. So what is that, less than a dollar and fifty cents apiece? I knew a collector who gladly forked a hundred each for the things in 16mm, back when it took a divining rod over breadth of dealer rooms to find such treasure. The caboodle looks better now than prints we once bled for. Again, so much for the Good Old Days. To enhance an already rich bounty is commentary for each short by revolving experts Richard M. Roberts, Randy Skretvedt, Brent Walker, and Robert Farr. Print quality is excellent through all of content. Todd and Pitts from Roach amounts to geyser of comedy sprung after being too long dormant. Order quick and let the gem-gather commence.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

More Of Madcap Marion

Not So Dumb (1930) Is Davies-Vidor Again At Comedy

Marion Davies is a thoroughgoing ditz in this, her second talkie. It was also director King Vidor's second go at sound (after Hallelujah), so both had hills to climb. Not So Dumb's source play had action confined to parlor and patio of a country estate. Vidor talked years later of how he tried to open things up by letting players migrate among rooms, but best intentions of 1929 don't make a 2018 sit easier. Davies is locus of modern interest --- there are buffs still who like her a lot --- and we can admire how she overcame what was purportedly a bad stutter to do dialogue sans handicap. Her "Dulcy" is a scatterbrain, always saying wrong things and inviting embarrassment, a high wire to walk where such types inevitably try patience. Not So Dumb tests Davies' charm. The title suggests there is brighter light to her dim bulb, which I waited for. Dulcy nearly wrecks her fiancé's chance at business success, for which we worry more today for knowing how fragile livelihoods were at this dawn of the Crash.

The play, called by the character's name, rolled them in aisles from 1921 and introduced "Dulcyisms," shorthand for mangled meanings. One mis-turn of phrase is a stunner that would today get Not So Dumb, if not Davies herself, run out of the industry. Goose to fun is Franklin Pangborn as a "scenarist" who elopes with the support ingénue. Their kissing may be a first (and only?) for Pangborn on screen. Vidor let players gild the play's dialogue with wit of their own, recalling that these were naturally funny folk who could enhance text they were handed. He also pointed out W.R. Hearst as a heavy hand behind scenes, "sufficiently powerful to compel MGM and me" to make this and previous vehicles with Davies. That implies Metro and a public didn't want her, which was not the case. Davies' output returned profit, and she did not throw weight around, despite Hearst association that would have allowed her to get away with it. Everyone seems to have liked Davies, and her party invites were a most coveted in town. Many a career was made or renewed during weekends at Hearst Castle where she played hostess. Davies films are the more interesting where seen in this context. Not So Dumb is available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Paramount Test Market In Action

Showmen Find The Selling Key For Doctor Cyclops (1940)

Paramount's 1940 Roll-Out

Made, so said, "behind locked doors," Doctor Cyclops would have been an ideal child's frolic but for its title character killing two of sympathetic doll-size victims in cold blood, an outcome we don't see coming for larkish fun had to that point (though there is tip-off of grim opener death for Paul Fix, bathed in green light as he's put under a lethal ray). A shrunk-to-scale cast interacts with giant props built after example of Devil Doll from MGM in 1936. Dumpsters must have groaned for post-production input, for where could massive books, balsa chairs, what not, ever be re-used? Directing was Ernest Schoedsack, recognized by publicity for trick films past, King Kong his standout, which you could say he followed up here. Interesting to have taller-than-tall Schoedsack calling action and cut on tiny folk besieged by a giant turned loon, for in a sense this was Schoedsack-eye view of peers, or at least how many saw him, though unlike Albert Dekker's mad experimenter, Schoedsack was benign to a fault.

Monster magazines of the 60's were paved with Cyclops stills to promise a moon of thrills if only we could track the rarity to syndicated lairs. Trouble was too few stations running Doctor Cyclops, let alone in color. Our Channel 8 in High Point did in 1967, a multi-hue dream come true. NC stations had begun leasing color prints where they could have them, a response to increased sale of color sets, this primary basis for B/W oldies being banished off VHF television, at least where I lived. Color came at a higher cost however, some broadcasters opting for B/W prints of color titles, an economy hopefully not noted by viewership. Theatres had done similar mischief through the 50's, many reissues of once-vibrant Technicolor features now booked in black-and-white only. Imagine Leave Her To Heaven or The Adventures Of Robin Hood seen that way, and in 35mm on a large screen. Such was compromise to which showmen and audiences resigned.

Paramount Home Office Reaches Out For Showman Assist To Market Doctor Cyclops

Kansas City Among The Test Markets For Doctor Cyclops

Doctor Cyclops was merchandised from the ground up, its offbeat theme, and utter lack of marquee names needing all of help a showmanship community could give. Toward that end, Paramount's home office (NY) reached out to managers proven at making screen fare fly, whatever hurdles stood before them. To sell a Hope-Crosby or a Beau Geste was infant's play --- just open doors and step back --- but Doctor Cyclops was unknown quantity, and peculiar besides. Three men and a woman shrunk by a kook scientist was thumbnail of the plot. Five advance preview sites were picked to make the yarn a magnet for showgoers. Theatre-men judged most capable, in Denver, Kansas City, Nashville, Altoona, and Providence, were put to the task. These would contribute ideas from which a nationwide campaign would develop. Whatever worked for them would be incorporated into posters, trade ads, and the pressbook. Gotham brainstorming could do but so much. It took creative minds wider afield to crack a sales code for Doctor Cyclops. What was achieved got an oddball movie a mainstream embrace, the five managers applauded as swimmers against a tide of patron resistance. Expertise like theirs was worth weight in admission coin, and I'd like to think career advance or at the least bonus reward was had for ideas these men cooked up.

Frankenstein's 1935 Bride Lends a Promoting Hand

Suppose your livelihood revolved around promoting one movie after another. No sooner would a project be done than another came to command your time and creative effort. Projects they were, and distributors were watching. For instance of Doctor Cyclops, Paramount sent field men to observe and report on what you'd do on behalf of the film. They'll help where needed, of course. Need a fifteen-foot high chair as bally display for your lobby? Find a way to get it built, and quick. Your request letter (shown above) arrives from the home office in mid-February for a March 7 opening. There are other features to exhibit and promote during the interim, but the Cyclops campaign must be baked and ready to serve by a set-in-stone playdate, drumbeat to be heard well ahead of that. Ideas develop in lieu of sleep, if necessary. The buck stops with you, as house manager. Trades call Doctor Cyclops a "decided novelty," those words a sword with two edges. Rewards are great if Doctor Cyclops clicks under your watch. An invite to region-supervise for Paramount, perhaps, or something extra in your pay packet. After all, you've helped pull bacon from a possible fire.

Nothing Sold During Summer Months Like Air-Conditioned Comfort

So results are in from the five test runs and all are outstanding. Altoona does 22 percent over normal, Nashville with the best business they've seen for a past year. Test cities top every Paramount attraction they've had since Beau Geste (Denver did it despite an otherwise crippling snowstorm). Looks like cakes and ale for all concerned, and sure-fire strategy for Doctor Cyclops as it goes into general release for late Spring and summer 1940. By then, theatres will labor under weight of hot days and hotter auditoriums. Some still close for swelter period, as who could be entertained from oven-vantage? Lush-equipped venues could boast air-conditioning, banners hung from marquees to let patronage know there was refuge here from heat. They'd watch Doctor Cyclops, or anything else, repeated times just to stay cool. Ads trumpeted the advantage, as there was no greater leg-up during summer months than refrigerated air.

A Lobby-Constructed Mad Lab To Bally Doctor Cyclops

"Romance" Ads Geared To Distaff Trade Not Otherwise Disposed To Sci-Fi Thrills

Doctor Cyclops was at the least a fun time for youth. They'd enter a heavy-promoting lobby and see wonders as great as what waited on the screen, if not a giant chair then perhaps a mad lab like the one Doctor Cyclops will use in the film, or a mirror display to peek through and see a pretty girl shrunk to pygmy-size. All in a day's visit to a well-run 1940 playhouse. Children were best served by Doctor Cyclops, so pair it with something else from Paramount they'll like, Gulliver's Travels or The Biscuit Eater perhaps, or at the least a serial chapter. We giggle at parts of Doctor Cyclops now, but who's to say it didn't scare them plenty in 1940? Are there survivors yet who recall the ferocious tabby with its low growl pursuing a shrunk cast through Technicolor'ed foliage? That unsettled me a bit and I'm supposed to be way more sophisticated than audiences back then. What we need is more eyewitness accounts of film-watching during the Classic Era. Otherwise, how's to know what effect these films had? Most of such access and opportunity is gone, or going, now. Doctor Cyclops survives mainly in memory of those who saw it on television, this no adequate place to watch, especially over years when it ran B/W only. Universal's DVD is bright compensation however, one of their better efforts at preserve and presentation. TCM should lease Doctor Cyclops and let one of their capable hosts celebrate it. There is still "decided novelty" here, and fresh veal for movie mavens who think they've seen everything.
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