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Friday, March 29, 2019

60's Slant On War-Making

Brit-Lensed The War Lover (1962) With Yank Stars

Made at Shepperton for Columbia release, this was WWII revisited with players too young to have participated in the actual conflict, that in itself a fresh approach after years of grizzled lead men suiting up for battle. Steve McQueen is a lone wolf pilot, Robert Wagner his second at the stick, and as with fly-boys back to Ty Power, Cagney, et al, it's McQueen snaking Wagner's girl, departure from cliché being SQ the sociopath everyone sees for what he is, Steve to his credit not softening the character to be more likeable. It was probably the rising star's best performance to that point, even as The War Lover made few waves otherwise. Wagner said in memoirs that McQueen was suspicious of everyone and protective of star standing. Most of action is on the ground, combat staged in boudoirs rather than sky. That last could be spelled out clearer as the Code loosened grip. A larger problem was networks having to shave content of The War Lover and like-others in conformance with standard still enforced on airwaves, movies by now making hasty way to tube play. The War Lover had a 1/20/66 debut on CBS, where a by far larger audience saw it than had paid admission in 1962.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Never Count Vaudeville Out

Where Variety Went From Cheap To Free

So vaudeville died, did it. Or did it? I’ll say no for purpose of this meditation, and for having watched acrobats, comics, dog acts, and what not for a past several nights of You Tube cruising, plus DVD’s dug from storage. Vaudeville left plenty of performers, if not their performances. Television from beginning absorbed thousands of acts that would prove as ephemeral as if done live for a turn-of-century public. In short, ninety-five percent of it is gone. Would we declare vaudeville dead if all of old TV survived, let alone was available for us to watch? Here’s my tally of Ed Sullivan shows to be seen in their entirety today: thirteen. Three with Elvis Presley, four with the Beatles, and six, if you can afford them (out of print, and $299.99, from Amazon), with the Rolling Stones. There is a four-episode group featuring the Stones that is more affordable. I mention this to point up the shocking dearth of Sullivan shows that we can enjoy today. He hosted variety hours from the late 40’s into the 70’s. That’s nearly as long as vaudeville had flush years. Do some math here: A big-time vaude house normally changed bills once per week. So did Ed. They had headliners plus meat-potato acts. Ed did too. Vaude as done live is gone --- and there’s the case as well for Sullivan’s backlog. Does it all survive? And if so, who owns it? Presumably Andrew Solt’s estate. But who in a right mind would release all of Ed Sullivan on disc? Stream them maybe, and for all I know, someone already has.

There’s argument yet over death or survival of vaudeville. Adherents, ones like me who’d like to think movies and TV preserved variety in some state of authenticity, will say it lasted well past recorded demise of the late 20’s-early 30’s, when per se vaudeville went smash. Performers who were there and saw the vessel sink give no quarter, however. Fred Allen was among most eloquent of these. He wrote flat in his 1956 memoir that “Vaudeville is dead.” Any of us who thought otherwise were kidding ourselves. “A few diehards who knew and enjoyed vaudeville hover over their television sets, hoping for a miracle. They believe that the electronic device is a modern oxygen tent that in some mysterious way can revive vaudeville and return its colorful performers of yesteryear to the current scene. The optimism of these day and night dreamers is wasted. Vaudeville is dead. Period.” Allen stood for many who spoke truth to unrealistic hope. Writers pointed out that radio and presentation houses were no substitute for true vaude. Airwaves locked performance to microphones, and with radio of course, we’d not see performers perform. Big theatres with vast stages were no improvement. How could a lone artist register? The term “presentation house” meant groups, ensembles, lined up to amuse thousands watching. Bands or orchestras clicked best, these perceived as equal to grandeur of palaces designed to host them.

Read any interview with a veteran entertainer and they’ll get around to days in vaudeville. Those that worked the real thing, as in two-a-day and tank towns, are gone now. Even Baby Rose Marie has passed. Was there ever so close a fraternity as emerged from vaudeville? These people came of a common climb that was easy for nobody. All from top to bottom knew what it was to ride smoky trains and have audiences jeer at them. Vaudeville was the great leveler for all of show business. I don’t think it bred a single overnight sensation. Fortunately, there is a lot of oral history. The acts are there too, thanks to films learning to talk in time to capture vaude while it still thrived. Shorts were done by the peck in the late 20’s, most a single reel which was time enough to memorialize a routine or sketch. There is even Weber and Fields in a DeForest Photophone snip. Makes me wish Lillian Russell had lived a little longer (d.1922), but at least we have Alice Faye’s approximation from 1940. That’s as good a way as any to know vaudeville, movies that celebrated it made by those who lived or at least knew of circuit/touring life. Vitaphone volumes, generously had from Warner Archive, make the case for vaudeville as Great Lost Art, a notion put forth from a start, all agreed that this was entertainment to unify each and all of America. But wouldn’t movies, radio, and TV do as much in their own ways?

Toby The Pup!
Much lamentation came with demise of true vaude. Talker screens got blame, then lavish theatres that used live acts to prop film fare. Sometimes it was hard to know where a tail wagged dogs, as with Sinatra or Martin/Lewis at vast venues and no one knowing what hell the movie was, even those that sat through twice to see hot favorites sing/mirth again. Radio meantime sucked up variety artists like a sieve, excepting “dumb” acts where visual routine was all. One wag said (though many claimed the quote) that television was the box vaudeville was buried in, which I suppose is accurate if not over-gloomy for demand vaude vets enjoyed again. But weren’t they kept busy through the war at camp shows? Lots argued a new fan base was born via armed force exposure to acts aged in wood that was variety. Again to disappearance of all that TV, deprivation so severe that we don’t even know what we’re missing. I watched a Sullivan Talk Of The Town (12-18-49) on YT. Ed opened with a “nostalgia” spot, as in fifty year back-glance at a gay, if vanished, 90’s. The guy who, in 1896, composed the tune for Sweet Adeline (Harry Armstrong) was there to sing it with a barbershop quartet. Then W.C. Handy, himself and aged 76, played St. Louis Blues, “The Most Widely Known Ragtime Composition.” Then Maude Nugent, who wrote Sweet Rosie O’Grady in 1896, sang and danced it. Are music historians aware of these appearances? And what of other Talk Of The Town shows? (there’s but a single complete one at You Tube) As with lost silent movies … best not to think about it. Will they be on TV or at theatres in Heaven? If not, maybe I’ll just stay here.

I am not a Beatles or Elvis faddist, though I much like them both. What I’ll say with certainty is that nobody else has lately watched their Ed Sullivan appearances in order to catch the other acts, that my sole goal toward understanding of old and (revolutionary) new on evenings that made amusement history. I recall bond shared with anyone when you asked what they recalled of the Beatles on 2/9/64 Sullivan, a toasty way to make friends right off, but no good for glassy Bug Off Old Man you get for mentioning it now. What memories can all folks share today? Talk about Elvis and they’ll stick you in a nursing home. But I’m not here to protest those things. I want to celebrate the Vagabonds singing Up The Lazy River, the Brothers Amin (acrobats), Conn and Mack (tap dance), and Toby The Dog. All these and more were there with Elvis, and host Charles Laughton. I said Charles Laughton, subbing for Ed on 9/9/56, and funnier than any comic he introduced. I think the word for Charlie here was nonplussed, but how he made that work. I’ve never seen CL pour molasses so lovingly. Did even Ed, presumably watching at home or at a distant hotel, figure he applied it too thick? Laughton twitches, gulps, eye-pops, and ad-libs to beat whatever bands he’ll introduce. I would like to have seen him duet with Elvis. What missed opportunity. Just thinking --- if Presley knew Laughton at all, it was probably from something like Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, for September 1956 was point where bulk of CL’s old movies were just beginning to show up on television.

Elvis for youth today would register “old” as The Vagabonds and trick dogs undoubtedly did to kids in 1956. Sullivan’s live audience was markedly more subdued than a madhouse that would cheer the Beatles eight years later. They even applauded long-form Lincoln-Mercury ads that were virtual shows in themselves. “Comedy and Magic” was a hard sit in any case where you’re waiting for the star act to come back, Sullivan doling both Elvis and The Beatles early, then late, on respective programs. He’d be a gracious host, but Ed was no fan, having been around too long for that. I’ll bet Sullivan missed pure vaudeville. He sure did more than anyone to keep it alive. Look at it this way: The Sunday night show being live, it was certainly “Big-Time” in every sense of a then-word, watchers getting nine or ten acts, if you’d forgive commercials. Folks liked to figure Ed Sullivan for a hopeless square, but he could and did give off warmth for artists he admired. Watch him laud comedian George Kirby on that Talk Of The Town survivor, a career boost for Kirby if ever there was one, and we’ve seen clips where Ed tells a world what a fine young man Elvis is. You had to see Sullivan enough to know his expressions and read his humor. The man was not for nothing the biggest long-run ratings-getter in the business.

Comedians McCall and Brill
I felt tension in the 1964 audience, and so surely did acts other than the Beatles, an alien force having taken over their show world. Ed led with the Mop Toppers, promised they’d be back, then left the crowd dangling. Fred Caps and his “card and salt-shaker trick” immediately followed, him as wanted as a dog with froth on its mouth. You feel the mob simmering as they’re fed variety their grandparents might have seen and disdained. The cast of “Oliver” got the frost, any other night a surefire boff, but not this one. The “comedy/office” sketch by McCall and Brill is a slow and endless drip before lions-as-in-Beatles re-enter the arena. Dividends may have been better than the husband-wife team expected, as press and curious hordes forevermore inquired of them what this level of pressure was like. Ed Sullivan no doubt felt for the hapless lot. Wonder if he warned them of the chipper they'd be fed into. Frank Gorshin sustains the best, to my reckoning. Ed estimated in a newspaper interview that 74 million watched that February night, him paying the Beatles $8,000 for a total of three appearances. “Distinguished families” wanted tickets for their children, reported Sullivan, the kids coming in groups. In November ’64, nine months after the first Beatle appearance, Ed confessed his own preference for Jan Garber’s music over the Liverpool lot, and that teens eventually would too, “Anyway, I think the whole thing is on the way down now.”

More at Greenbriar Archive of vaudeville clinging to life in the 40's. 

Monday, March 25, 2019

Greenbriar's Broadway and Vaudeville Week

The Broadway Melody Looms Large For 1929

Jack Cummings Presents Ceremonial Megaphone to Broadway Melody's Director Harry Beaumont

Denounced by some as The Worst Movie To Ever Win Best Picture, this a matter of opinion and shouldn’t apply anyway to something this old. Why not award a historic first, which The Broadway Melody certainly was/still is. Did they like it in 1929? Well, The New York Daily News began their review with “Zowie!,” praise upward from there. There had not so far been such a pro-job of a talkie. Metro knew that and crowed accordingly. Their souvenir book for The Broadway Melody (yours for a quarter in the lobby) had a page headed “The Quality Talking Picture,” which minced no words: “not a talking picture scene … was “shot” … until months of painstaking production under expert supervision made it apparent that everything was in readiness to produce dialogue films technically and artistically as good as the best silent dramas.” Florid to a fault, as was most studio handouts, but also a rag on Warner Bros. for “haste-make-waste” in rabid pursuit of sound from 1926. Metro waited, bided time, let rivals test viewer patience with inferior product. The Broadway Melody would demonstrate how things could be done where highest standards were applied. February 1, 1929 open at Broadway’s Astor Theatre settled any question that talkies were here to stay.

First impression being critical, Leo tech staffers sifted everything but the carpet (maybe that too) at the Astor and West Coast host Grauman’s to rid both of gremlins that may upset smooth presentation. Not for Metro was synch bumps and speaker gaffes that sent many a patron home disgruntled. These shows had to be perfect to a tee, word-of-mouth never so critical as now. “Two great sound stages at Culver City” were devoted to The Broadway Melody and talkers to come. Silents weren’t done for, of course, not yet anyway. Too many small venues needed them, so Leo got out a voiceless version of The Broadway Melody, which had Broadway, but no melodies, lest those supplied by piano tinklers in hick houses not yet wired. Ones of us in the wilds were resigned to urban keys being a most vital source of life blood to filmmakers. We were lucky, in fact, that they let us see their output at all. As to impact on Gotham, the real Broadway that is, movies laid a haymaker. Given song and dance, and at such bargain admission, why buy tickets to plays and revues aimed more at high hats/deep pockets? But then modest vaudeville took its lick, a TKO on grand and organized scale. Cheering was now sole province of film folk, for they had drubbed all of entertainment rivals and need only pick bones for what performers they could use.

Bessie Love Plies Variety Trade Ahead of Her Broadway Melody Casting

The Broadway Melody stayed at the Astor from February 1929 into August, attendance records predictably crushed. Policy was strictly roadshow, $2 tops, men often as not in formal attire. Hollywood coveted everything the Main Stem had, especially perception of class. Too many remembered the stink of nickelodeons, but progress had been made, and none represented it so well as The Broadway Melody. Latter was scarcely a patch on the best a White Way had to offer (even the worst, some said), but welcome mats were laid to all, with popular prices the promise of sub-runs and nabes that would get The Broadway Melody eventually. Not to be forgot is what sock amusement this was in 1929 --- still is to my of-late estimate at TCM, where The Broadway Melody plays HD and, blown up to large image, has or least suggests grandeur first-run watchers knew. If it’s insight to the era you want, this has it by yards, insider talk so rife that you need a glossary, as in Bessie Love saying to Anita Page that “we’re as good as the Duncans,” further explanation not needed, at least back then. The Duncans, of course, were a sister act that Love/Page duplicate in The Broadway Melody. Bessie refers to doing “Sun time,” which was variety shorthand for small-time trouping for the Gus Sun circuit, him tiers below better known and bigger-time vaudeville. The Broadway Melody squares away total conviction in its opening scene set at NY’s teeming Tin Pan Alley, a demo of MGM grasp of sound what with a beehive of singers, piano smiths, pluggers, all shilling at once, an exhilarating starter gun.

Bessie and Anita Make a Harry Beaumont Sandwich
Bessie Love wrote an enchanting memoir about her life in pictures called “From Hollywood With Love.” Who dreamed this woman lasted so long at the plow as from Intolerance to final bow that was The Hunger in 1983? That’s giving Lillian Gish a run for money. Love had been busy in silents, tried vaudeville when chips were reduced, then got a spike where musicals saw her dance-song skills noticed. She talks at length about The Broadway Melody in her book, as in chaotic grind it was. Twelve-or-more hour workdays, with no overtime, was the norm. Recording was strictly trial-and-error, mostly error. Whenever you thought something was got right, the recording disc would jump its track. Anita Page had a nervous crack-up one day and had to go home early. Thalberg gave Love a contract which paid her for forty weeks a year even though she'd work like a dog for fifty-two. She gives a best explanation of falsity behind “time off” those twelve unpaid weeks were supposed to represent. There was never time off at Metro, or any of the studios. If you could be got to work, you went. Even out of town, or on so-called vacation, there was press and promoting to do. Love tells about The Broadway Melody playing Grauman’s on a virtual loop, and how she was obliged to head down after grueling days to intro or outro the show, greet the audience, “to clown or do something.” Shouldn’t the theatre have paid her? --- no matter, they didn’t.

Songs in The Broadway Melody veer from to-be standards to oddballs like “The Boy Friend,” another of paeans to morality loosened by the jazzy age. Fact they were girly-sang made lyrics the more a stimulus. Love and Page dance out with a chorus, both in brief attire, Bessie strumming a uke. Words go thus: “Clear the decks, when he necks, there’s no other in his sex …” Love recalled an orchestra seated just off-camera to accompany. Everything had to be caught live, or go uncaught, and done again. “If he’ll say, come my way, I’m ready now,” is shorthand for yes to advances, “He’s so hot …just a great big hotsy-tot” the sum-up. I’m guessing there were hundreds of songs as suggestive as this. Vitaphone shorts and precode features are full of them. They didn’t call it “hot jazz” for nothing. I wonder if parents, especially of adolescent girls, forbade radio, gramophones, even sheet music, to spare offspring this stuff. Anyone who imagines the 20’s to be an age of innocence need to plow deeper.

Back in the day of Hollywood Collector shows, when old-time celebs hawked autographs, someone pointed out an elderly lady seated at the Beverly Garland Hotel’s restaurant. “That’s Anita Page,” they whispered, and sure enough, sixty-five years after The Broadway Melody, there she was. Wish now I had spoken, just to say from then on (and here) that I met Anita Page. Maybe just seeing her was enough. Melody’s souvenir book had a column called “Adventurous Anita,” which said she enrolled in a “university class” for voice culture, two hours a night after work. If this were true, which I doubt, when did our girl sleep? Anita mentions a device called “the voice dissector” that had been installed at USC, “a great help to many persons starting talking picture work.” What a crazy and confused era this was. Anita Page lasted but three years at MGM after The Broadway Melody. She claimed later that Louis Mayer made a pass at her (unsuccessful, natch). The Broadway Melody can be had on DVD in addition to the TCM runs. The disc also has a group of “Metro Movietone Revues,” which are Leo-equivalent of Vitaphone shorts WB did. They are alone worth the price of purchase.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Team That Could Do No Wrong

Greenstreet-Lorre Together For A Last Time in The Verdict (1946)

A masterpiece if your thing is Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre framed in gaslight. I'd watch them read table menus for the ninety minutes involved, which at times seems extent of action in The Verdict, a leisure stride fans would want no other way. Greenstreet/Lorre were about byplay and contrast of style/appearance, a triumph of character men bending a star system to their unique measure. Greenstreet in an Inverness cape looks like three guys walking astride, his voice an instrument that plays pure pleasure. Lorre too, of course, who was always best when bent, even if slightly. Their teamings were like Burbank doing Karloff/Lugosi on bigger budget terms, the pair fortunate they weren't typed to horror subjects and so able to reach mainstream patronage. "Mystery" could be creepy, but not horrific, with always a rational explanation for what happens. That was firm foundation of thrillers WB did with Greenstreet/Lorre.

You could turn off sound and derive scares off fog-bound setting, The Verdict not unlike Fox's The Lodger for tension the equal of chillers done elsewhere. New-to-directing-features Don Siegel was given The Verdict for Warner initiation. He said in a fine memoir that the script was weak and the picture dull, both of which you could reasonably argue, but Siegel was assessing The Verdict from '46 perspective, not in rose-hue terms on which we now approach it. Production was against backdrop of a violent studio strike that required Siegel to literally fight his way into daily work, a struggle to duck chicanery by J.L. and underlings always after something for nothing from creative staff. A Siegel Film, published in 1996, gives vivid recall to harsh reality of studio life during what we call a Golden Era. Read this book and understand why Siegel was unsentimental about The Verdict and other shows we treasure. He had to live through making them.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Star Personas Gather Up Greatness

Where Gimmicks and Tricks Made Great Actors

Gary Cooper Appears As a Friendly Witness Before the House Un-American Activities Committee

Jeff Corey in the Foreground, with Jack Carson, Gary Cooper, and Lauren Bacall, in Bright Leaf

Clark Gable and Charles Lane in Teacher's Pet
From Alan Ladd, a quote: “Maybe I can’t act, but I know the gimmicks. I studied acting all my life and know what’s good for me.” There’s defensive tone here, as if Ladd saw the category critics and some of a public kept him in. He realized that sector was not what made or maintained his stardom. Ladd went chin out by admitting “gimmicks” that drove his performing. The humble hat was common to stars “just playing themselves,” which as often meant laughing at themselves wherever “real” acting was addressed. Gary Cooper got room-filling howls for a HUAC “friendly witness” turn where questioners asked his profession, and he tentatively replied “actor.” The stronger a star’s persona, the more doubt must be cast on ability, “true” ability as defined by those who saw versatility, preferably demonstrated on a stage, as barometer of an actor's skill. Cooper and Ladd both used “gimmicks.” Cooper said as much to colleague Jeff Corey (“I only have two or three tricks at best, and that’s not enough, is it?”) when both took thesp classes in the 50’s --- I said the 50’s, a point at which Coop could have stayed home fielding job offers reliable as sun-up. He knew he was doing something, plenty, right, but sought, always, to be better.

Alan Ladd Early On, at Right, in 1936's Pigskin Parade

Ladd So Big a Star That Frame Blow-Up Stills Of Him Were Used to Promote a Wartime Reissue of Captain Caution

Clark Gable was like that too. Character actor Charles Lane recalled one of their films together: “Clark … was a man of great insecurity in his work.” Lane had come back half-an-hour early from lunch. “There were three grips eating their sandwiches out of paper bags, and Gable --- rehearsing all by himself. I said, ‘What in God’s name are you doing?’ He said, ‘Oh Charlie, I stink so in this thing, I’ve got to do something about it.’” Lane characterized Gable as “a very hard worker” (this in 1959, a point at which Gable too could have rested on laurels). These quotes, by the way, are from Jordan R. Young’s outstanding collection of interviews, Reel Characters. Jeff Corey observations derive from Close-Ups, edited by Danny Peary, a classic book from 1978. Back to Alan Ladd and his quote: Yes, he studied, and bigger yes, did know what was good for him. That study meant trial/error. Look at Captain Caution and 1941’s The Black Cat to see Ladd feeling his way toward effective screen presence. He would try “acting” in both and learn that to try hard need not mean trying too hard. Others gave advice, Ladd wired to levels of talent in both motion pictures and radio, latter where he’d develop a richly expressive voice the equal of anybody’s. This Gun For Hire demonstrated that underplaying “was good for him,” and that lesson would not be forgot.

Ladd went all out for action, but tamped down for dialogue and quieter scenes. No one would catch him over-emoting again. He kept his audience guessing, which women in particular liked. Could a man so impenetrable be reached by anyone? Ladd left most of expression to his eyes, reporting after work one day that he had done a particularly good “look” for cameras, a kidding remark, but serious too because he knew that’s where his strength was. No, Ladd did not play himself, unless himself was a process needing years to shape and perfect. I think the reason Ladd slowed in the 50’s was circumstances of his offscreen life corroding the model developed in more-less youth. He didn’t look the same or move as before, the Ladd persona by this time inflexible. Withhold of emotion perhaps made him too rigid, more so in a decade where trends in lead men rewarded outburst and even tears where event called for it, or didn’t. But viewers wanted Ladd as they knew him best, or not at all. Less work near the end reflected choice of the latter. Through the 50’s at least, he had an audience, and Jack Warner for one said that Alan Ladd was a most bankable of stars then at work. Melancholy woven into the persona from early on continued to resonate. Teens even could be moved by it, as in Ladd as identification figure for isolated high schooler Sal Mineo in Rebel Without A Cause; his "Plato" keeps a photo of the star pasted inside his locker, one outsider living vicarious through another.

Ladd and Co-Star Edward G. Robinson Welcomed By Jack L. Warner for Hell On Frisco Bay

Odd thing was, Ladd’s offscreen image differed utterly from the closed shop of his film persona, as if to say latter was all pretend just like movies and everyone who performed in them. The dissent was too ingrained however, so that lone wolf Ladd of the screen became our concept of the “real” Alan Ladd, rather than uneasy exemplar of perfect family life as put forth by a mainstream press and fan magazines. As told before, I had an elementary school band teacher named Priscilla Call, formerly Priscilla Lyon, and once a child actress in movies and radio. She was represented by Hollywood agent Sue Carol, a prime architect of the Ladd image, and married to him as well. The Ladds would host Sunday cookouts for Sue’s clients, so Priscilla was invited often. She told me that Alan Ladd was polite but withdrawn, joining the party for a while, then retiring to the pool where he’d swim laps alone. Any witness to this, Priscilla for sure, might say, “Yes, here is Alan Ladd as he really is,” a figure in keeping with what we saw of him in movies.

Ladd’s persona was at once steadfast and variable. Each time, it seemed we might break through and understand him better. Shane was a truest reflection of this because George Stevens knew the acting instrument he had in Ladd. A brilliant enough director did wonders with an established image, for he could find and reveal subtleties others would not see. It was no coincidence when Ladd said he learned more about acting from Stevens than any director he ever worked with. An outstanding film actor, and Ladd was certainly that, accrues much over years of honing a screen image. Each part adds layers to a deepening mosaic. A star who’s been around long enough is known to us as well as family members. It is why loyalty to them was so acute, especially during the Studio Era when the most capable of them emerged. A Ronald Colman anecdote: He was invited to do a cameo in Around The World In 80 Days, for which he got a bucket of cash, or a Cadillac, or some such windfall, I forget which and it doesn’t matter, but someone asked him how it was that he should be paid so exorbitantly for a single day’s work, to which Colman replied, “This is not for one day’s work … it is for a lifetime of work.”

Hell On Frisco Bay is primo Ladd, and great to have back in circulation after years gone begging for decent prints. Warner’s Blu-Ray is Cinemascope-wide and a mile high for fans who have waited so long. There is reward for seeing a star exactly as we want him, Ladd in modern dress, just sprung from Alcatraz for a killing he didn’t commit, bitter toward a wife that has not stayed faithful for five years he was in the jug, to that add fact “Steve Rollins” is an ex-cop, and there is corruption in the force he must root out. Who needs favorite stars to be “versatile”? The best personas were fixed, and happily so. Smart players like Ladd protected them. Lead men too eager to widen range often as not stumbled. Hell On Frisco Bay was 2018’s comfort disc for me. Ladd’s accumulation of “self” by 1955 lends even his physical decline a grandeur. The Ladd history, fed by continuity of an image congenial to us, lends depth to “Steve,” who does what we expect of Alan Ladd, the persona larger than any individual part he would play. Was it producer Ladd (his “Jaguar” company) who suggested Edward G. Robinson for lead nemesis, because the idea was inspired. The two crackle singly, and together (AL to Eddie, “I’d like to kill you so much, I can taste it”). Of course, Robinson brings freight of his own to Hell On Frisco Bay. Was it sour aftertaste of the war that made his crime lords so much crueler than before? Dialogue here is really nasty, especially the way E.G. abuses Fay Wray, an unexpected and welcome supporting presence. Ladd as Jaguar head knew how to cast his vehicles, never hogging the frame where others had opportunity to shine. I could go on, but it’s enough to say that Hell On Frisco Bay is a viewing must, and Warners’ Blu-Ray looks terrific.
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