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Thursday, June 27, 2019

Early Talk Goes Underwater

Columbia Treasure Hunts With Below The Sea (1933)

Imagine if Ann Darrow took over the Venture and worked her erotic wiles on a whole crew. They'd forget Skull Island soon enough, as demonstrated here in a Columbia programmer Fay Wray did around a same time as King Kong, her Bruce Cabot counterpart a rough-and-tumble Ralph Bellamy with as much use for women (he thinks) as BC prior to wrestling with Wray. She comes on like a siren of the sea, and though we're a third in before Fay enters, she's worth the wait. Was this actress aware of the heat she spread? Below The Sea happily gives her guile as opposed to innocence under threat that was customary menu. Fay is financing a scientific comb of deep waters that unbeknownst to her, conceal gold bars sunk with a U-Boat from the past war. The latter's captain has teamed with Ralph to salvage same amidst double-crossing between the two and a femme confederate. Sounds more complicated than it is, Below The Sea a pure actioner that must have stood Depression youth on their ears. Columbia did likes of this by yards, and some were fine as limited expectation could hope for. 24/7 work on such as Below The Sea was what pushed Ralph Bellamy into embrace of an Actor's Guild; he talks of it in his memoir. TCM plays Below The Sea frequent, and it warrants the short sit. 

Monday, June 24, 2019

Snow White A Sock In Seattle

Another Home Historian Covers Snow White in 1938

An Appeal to the many who know more than I do: Name films for which a scrap book was issued, a dedicated album to fill with souvenirs, like the one above for Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. I can’t offhand think of another movie where this was done, but surely there were some since 1937, and maybe others before. Paramount imitated most aspects of Snow White with Gulliver’s Travels in 1939, but there’s no evidence of a scrapbook, at least the pressbook doesn’t indicate one. What’s shown here is proof that at least one Snow White album was bought, and filled, by a dedicated fan in Seattle. It is a priceless record of local exploitation during 1938 and varied news articles that ran alongside ads placed by the Music Box and the 5th Avenue Theatres. Like with Russell Merritt’s dedication to Hound of The Baskervilles in 1959, here was an anonymous viewer’s effort to gather everything Seattle did on Snow White’s behalf and memorialize it. Did he/she anticipate that Disney’s first animated feature would live forever?

You’re nearing ninety or past it if you saw Snow White first-run. We’re told since 1937-38 that the impact was huge. There had never been a talkie to roll up grosses like this. Grown-ups saw Snow White and cried. It was a genuine social phenomenon. Experts warned you couldn’t hold an audience still for an hour and a half of cartoon. That was to extent true for animated features that came after Snow White, even most of Disney’s, none of which stirred a same emotion in watchers. I sought an eyewitness to Snow White’s first salvo and found one in teacher/historian Conrad Lane, who was born in 1930 and saw the show new in March 1938. He was seven and a half years old. The place was Anderson, Indiana. Conrad had no awareness of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs before his mother took him to see it. He had certainly been to movies (earliest recollection: Footlight Parade in 1933), and liked cartoons, the recent Popeye specials (Ali Baba, Sindbad, etc.) having made a big impression. The term “freaked me out” would wait thirty years after Snow White for coinage, but Conrad says it applied here, for he was “absolutely enthralled.”

They had entered the theatre right went the huntsman failed in his resolve to kill Snow White and warned her instead to run away and never come back. Conrad says this was a most terrifying thing he’d seen in movies up to that time. Even a happy ending dismayed him, for why would Snow White leave her dwarf friends to ride off with a prince she barely knew? His mother replied, “She came back to see them once a year” (maybe Disney should have inserted a title to that effect). Next day’s print ad touted Snow White as “Held Over.” It was the first time Conrad encountered the term. Awareness of Snow White would linger thanks to bally nailed on telegraph poles between home and school. Here was no mere kid picture. Conrad’s aunt and uncle drove two hours from out of state to experience Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs at an early Indianapolis run. Disney would not in his lifetime see response like this for an animated feature. Maybe adults spent their bolts on Snow White, because Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, got nowhere near it. I wonder if, when follow-ups came, they said, “We’ve seen one of these, and one is enough.” Snow White was many kinds of a glorious novelty, but in the end, it was a novelty, “something that is new and has not been experienced before, and so is interesting,” as the books say, but how many go back for a novelty done again?

Seattle’s scrapbook keeper got much help filling pages from local newspapers. Each week they would memorialize records set at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, where Snow White stayed a month before moving over to the Music Box Theatre for three more frames. Short subjects were freshened through the run, Quintupland, featuring the Dionnes, an initial accompany to Snow White. Ads were customized to signal each holdover (“Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho!, Seattle Loves Us So!”). It became clear that patrons were going back again and again to see Snow White. Repeat biz as a foregone conclusion was incorporated into ads (“No Matter How Many Times You See It, You’ll Always See Something New”). Music Box management told local press that “no screen offering --- since the advent of audibility in the cinema, had been viewed repeatedly by so many patrons.” 1,700 ticket-buyers saw Snow White twice, 600 had been in three times, and 63 people declared they watched the feature four times, and planned to return again.

This kind of success had to inspire a copy, Paramount in most favored position with Max Fleischer’s shop at feature-ready. They tested water with the Popeye specials, and went forward now with Gulliver’s Travels, which was handsome, if derivative. A best lick at Disney may have been Gulliver getting into the Christmas 1939 marketplace ahead of a delayed Pinocchio. If Snow White was to be Disney’s sole blockbuster, at least it could draw repeatedly from that well. 1940 dates had Oscar-winner Disney cartoons for company, and a worldwide $2.4 million yielded from the first major reissue (1944) was better money than Fantasia and Dumbo took in their first release. Snow White stayed evergreen with a worldwide $2.2 million in 1952, this revival stage-managed by Terry Turner. Snow White was kept off TV but for clips and songs excerpted to tease new theatrical dates (1958), or when Walt permitted a pencil test for an unused segment to highlight a 1956 episode of Disneyland. There was nothing quite like the affection Snow White inspired, a jewel precious enough to stay locked up except where admission was paid to theatres. Frozen out were schools and film societies that would otherwise rent Snow White in 16mm, even as other Disney animated features went that route. Eight or so minutes of Snow White could be had on 8mm, in color even, but getting the whole thing meant resort to bootleg 16mm, which, depending on the skill of your duper, could serve well, since prints were often made off reduction negatives finessed from 35mm, the latter accessible thanks to Snow White continuing to run at cinemas. All a pirate had to do was take a print to his lab and run off a negative. Good enough tech work and a re-recorded track could yield nice 16mm. That’s all smoked meat now, what with Blu-ray, streaming, the rest of resources to enjoy Snow White at our leisure.

Elmer and Bugs Back in 2019 with Dynamite Dance

But who’s watching Snow White today? Would it seem too stately … slow? Likely as not, yes and yes, for sure beside hopped-up animation of a last … thirty years at least? Anyone who treasures Snow White would have had to grow that love in a theatre seat, as SW was no television staple (was there ever a broadcast?). Home video release was in 1994, the kiss-off to reissues that sustained Snow White since 1937. Wouldn’t a young parent be more likely to scoot Junior in front of whatever Toy Stories or Little Mermaids were handy? Those represent Mom and Dad’s youth better than hieroglyph like Snow White. To put it mild, you’ve got to be some serious old to hold Snow White dear, but is this not true of any Classic Era animation too long out of a wider public eye? I see where Warner Bros. is trying yet again to revitalize their cartoon stable, this time “1,000 minutes of new animation each season, which will be available across multiple platforms, including digital, mobile, and broadcast.” They’ve gone back to old-style cartooning if the online sample is to be believed, a minute-and-a-half Bugs/Elmer called Dynamite Dance. So how long will WB transfuse effort and dollars to characters long past mainstream life? There were 3-D Road Runners, a Tweety, some others, in 2010. Before that came Tiny Toon Adventures (1990-1992) and Animaniacs (1993-1998), these over twenty years ago, closing on thirty, in fact. Are there fans that grew up on Tiny Toons and consider them classics? Hard to guess … I was raised on Huckleberry Hound, but need not revisit him. The Warner figures were such a force, and for so long --- how could they simply fade away? --- yet we must wonder how many more chances WB will give the franchise. If this latest effort fails, might it be the last Looney Tune or Merrie Melody we hear?

Earlier Greenbriar consideration, over ten years back, on modern fate of classic cartoons. Be sure to review the comment section.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Precode's Speed Breed

Central Airport (1933) Dares Death In The Sky

Speed was not just a preference in a first third of the 20th century --- it was a religion. Everyone wanted to get there faster because now they knew they could. Locomotives once belching steam kettles sleeked into silver bullets with names like "Super Chief," and you were just nobody till you went up in a plane. Central Airport, the title a misnomer because no one airport is central or singular site of action, has a first reel contest between a speeding train and overhead plane buzzing it. No one sees risk; there's just exhilaration for living at a time where no spot seemed distant anymore. When getting there fast seemed everyone's goal, I wonder how dangerous roads became by the 20's and 30's, far fewer of them paved then, let alone blessed with multiple lanes for travel. Speed-crazy Richard Barthelmess and kid brother Tom Brown make the case for damn-the-danger in sky-larking, their multiple crack-ups to be expected and even relished toward conquest of the sky.

Central Airport was directed by William Wellman, who had real-life thumbed nose at doom and knew what fun was had in danger. I wonder how many barnstormers got start for watching Wellman movies. Parents should have kept offspring away from these instead of worrying about sex content of precode, although Central Airport has plenty of that too. The film was sold as The Crowd Roars of the air, latter from Howard Hawks having come out the previous season, and virtually remade here. How many screen families split over junior brother following his elder into hazardous enterprise? (before, and later, it would be war service) A Barthelmess, Cagney, Richard Dix, many others, were poor collective influence from a mother's standpoint. Trouble was, fast cars, trains, even airborne jennys (called the Model T of planes during the 20's) were easily got at by whoever of a public cared to fly, even in rural spots to which itinerant aviators came and gave lessons. Central Airport was merely one of devils crooking a finger at youth to come take the stick and stare fate down. Thanks to relentless lure like this, we'd not lack for personnel to conquer the air, then wipe it clear of enemies who'd attack from above.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Capra Times Three Makes For Great Reads

Taken Together, They Tell a Riveting Story

I’ll ask right off if the following is right or wrong: Cecil B. DeMille, and later Frank Capra, were the first major directors to pen a memoir. Others would after old Hollywood got 70’s traction, but before? Capra’s book was published in 1971. A major success, it made director recall a paying proposition. Film students, rising in number as schools widened the curriculum, swore by The Name Above The Title. Critics were impressed by colorful mosaic Capra made of his life, plus how candid he was about failures and insecurity. Capra had to be a showmanlike writer to put this book across, a same policy he applied to movies. That meant depicting himself as bigger than life, same as other screen pioneers who were bigger than life. What famed director went all humble and self-effacing for books or interviews? Don’t know of one offhand, unless his output was humble, and to that I bet even Ford Beebe puffed up when press or fans approached him. Capra embroiders, skips life incidents that slow momentum, and seizes credit for what went right in his work, all in service to text he hoped would be as entertaining as a Frank Capra movie. Readers, he knew, would expect no less.

I read The Name Above The Title in tandem with Joseph McBride’s Frank Capra: The Catastrophe Of Success, back and forth, one to the other, until 1100 pages representing both were done. For appetizer, there was McBride’s recent Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra, which clocks another 600 pages. I got afraid all this would turn me into Frank Capra. All three books are outstanding and for very different reasons. McBride corrects and chastises Capra for perhaps good cause, but didn’t live the man’s life, and there’s beauty of The Name Above The Title, whatever its fudging with facts. For instance: A most humiliating moment for the young director was his mis-hearing his name called at the 1933 Academy Awards dinner when they actually meant for Frank Lloyd to come up and collect the statue. Capra wallows in the long-past mortification, horror of it notched way past actuality of the event, but fun reading for all who harbor a single embarrassment as worse of their lives. Capra knew this was baggage mankind as a whole carries, so who couldn’t identify with his abasement? The young director as new hire at Mack Sennett’s pie factory makes for a chapter so appealing that I care less about its being wholly accurate than it just keeps on being funny. That one has been excerpted in Best Of … film writing anthologies since. Capra tells of wild/wooly moments shooting Submarine and Flight, makes Jack Holt a colorful personality, offscreen at least, and by dent of you-were-there anecdotes, fires our interest in forgotten service pics anyone would play hell tracking down in 1971(I didn’t see Submarine or Flight until pinched prints were shown me in the late 80’s).

Capra was taken to task for raking Harry Langdon over coals. Here was his sharpest ax to grind. Langdon had once fired Capra and got word out that he was less a director (of The Strong Man) than a glorified gagman. The slander almost still-borned Capra’s career, and being sensitive to slights meant he’d never forgive, even unto old age and biographer McBride recalling Capra’s always-reference to Langdon as “the little bastard.” Well, a man can hate for keeps. We all like to think we’re above it, but who is kidding who? The Frank flaw makes him human, a quality his book has much of. I can understand why old-age colleagues rallied round The Name Above The Title. They saw much of themselves in Capra. To worthwhile footnote re Capra v. Langdon, go find Ann Doran’s interview in Filmfax # 48 (that invaluable magazine again) --- she was at Columbia in the early 40’s and witnessed a Frank/Harry reunion way different from what Capra depicted in The Name Above The Title. A man making himself big like Capra will reach that point of urgency where bigness must be protected at cost that varies according to accomplishment. Since Capra was hands-down a most celebrated director of the 30’s, imagine burden that entailed. His book practically shouts despair Capra knew when awards stopped coming and phones quit ringing.

Frank Capra timed The Name Above The Title perfectly. It was the serious film book that 1971 needed, a great maker of late shows telling in detail how he made late shows great, reassuring us that staying up half of nights, at least to watch Capra movies, was not waste. Other survivors from Classic Hollywood could point and say yes, here is what we all went through to create marvelous films. Capra must have been deafened by applause he got in old age. A broader public saluted him than Ford, Hawks, maybe even Hitchcock, who of the group, was still working and so kept most relevant. Wellman, Walsh, a number of others, did books, but for a narrower constituency, Capra the model, conscious or not, for each of them. His writing was as much for those not fully in the bag for old films, but curious at least of how a Golden Age progressed, in other words a popular audience same as those Capra appealed to when he was a biggest cheese in movie land. There was value too for those deeper down rabbit holes, such as Capra account of spacing “length between gag lines to get more laughs,” and picking up pace on the set so outcome would play faster to the audience. Capra stayed home from previews, had his minions record the crowd response, then analyzed the tapes to determine where changes should be made. He talks a lot about improvisation on the set, this to argue Capra as fullest architect of finished films. I remember being so impressed by The Name Above The Title because there had been nothing quite like it to that point (1971 still a parched desert for worthwhile film books).

Capra came to Charlotte once, I believe in the early 80’s. The theatre ran It Happened One Night to back his visit. The print was lousy and Capra apologized for it. Of course, that was Columbia’s fault and not his. Most of their backlog looked bad in days when revival housing booked whatever tatters could be got. Still, it was Capra in person and he was gracious. A lot of young people probably went into the business by his example. This man didn’t need the money but flew out (in this instance, 3000 miles) to please admirers whose number was swelled by the book. Columbia in a DVD age tried at last to make the films presentable. Results now on Blu-Ray bear out at least qualified success of their mission. Capra remains the biggest director name in Columbia’s inventory and will likely remain so. Research-wise, Capra is covered as well as any Classic Era filmmaker, thanks to Joseph McBride’s work which has been ongoing since The Catastrophe Of Success was published in 1992. Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra tells of the struggle McBride had to get his earlier book published in the face of “bureaucratic resistance,” quite a dramatic odyssey for the author and a full-absorbing read. McBride’s books made for a nice tandem with Capra’s own. Also Two Cheers For Hollywood, a compilation of McBride essays, set visits, and interviews gathered over a fifty year period, is highly recommended. 

Monday, June 17, 2019

Dark and Darkest at the Drive-In

Poe, Will You Ever Be Avenged?

Is it my skewed perception, or were there designer horror films during the late 50/early 60’s? I speak of Hammers, the AIP Poes, much of what Mario Bava did in Europe. They scored on looks same as Universal in a previous era, and were hardly more explicit despite what critics and some parents accused. I’m watching castle-set Poes again and marveling at result got by Roger Corman and crew, harried as they were, hemmed by budgets not a lot higher than what enabled teenaged cavemen and Viking women/sea serpents. To say “designer” is to credit the man who foraged “flats,” which I understand to be false walls one could manipulate into fore or backgrounds, and depending on who’s doing it, make a palace look haunted or enable Usher abode to serve as “monster” of the piece. Daniel Haller was that man for AIP, and I wonder why greater glory didn’t come his way for jobs so impeccably done, and at such savings. There is an issue of Video Watchdog (#138) where Haller joins a round table with Roger Corman and Joe Dante to discuss the Poe series, as in-depth as there is on chillers that yet await rightful due. Consult this VW for decorating tips from House Beautiful that was 60’s AIP.

For films that thrived at drive-ins, the Poes did not sit easily beneath stars. I climbed a summer ’65 Matterhorn of getting transport to outdoor triple-serve of of The Haunted Palace, Brides of Dracula, and Curse of the Werewolf at the Starlite (plowed over, converted to a grocery store now shuttered). Palace was being beamed as we drove in, a spider in credits at slow pursuit of a butterfly as Starlite night fought to rid the sky of sun. We could barely detect action on the screen, so dark was the film’s setting and action. I kept hoping for lighter scenes lest our grown-up driver declare the outing a bust and make for a closest exit. The Haunted Palace was thus viewed in a state of tension quite apart from that infused by the story, my attention focused more on the inattention, or worse, impatience, of companions trying to see what was going on. For an interminable first half, we might as well have been listening to a radio drama. This rushed back as I watched the Blu-Ray, lit proper and projected in a pitch-black room. So much for charmed nights at the drive-in … they were never that for me. I read how Hollywood began over-lighting movies in the 50’s to compensate for dim-out on outdoor screens. Was this indeed policy as implemented by the studios? If so, Roger Corman ignored or never got the memo.

The Poes were generally style over substance. Those who ran them in bunches saw bumps repeat in each, as in, must housing always burn? --- and how subject to fire were stone-built castles? AIP paired House of Usher with The Pit and the Pendulum for a ’64 reissue. To look at both was to see a same story twice. But never mind. Sheer numbing repetition can sometimes be a friend. They look stunning in scope with Vincent Price to up-prop airier support casts. Usher and Pit begin identical, a fiancé (Usher) or brother (Pit) has come in search of his affianced (Usher) or sister (Pit). He must barge past a servant whose presence further slows an already languid pace. Price makes a “shock” entrance to stinger music. Both young men (Mark Damon, John Kerr) are asked repeatedly to leave, both by Price and castle help. Burial alive is a principal theme. Was Corman and staff enough spooked by prospect of premature internment to so beat the theme like a rug? Maybe it was Poe to blame. His stories as adapted by AIP were less scary than plain morbid. That appealed to me as a youngster, which maybe suggests I shouldn’t have been permitted to see these things. Did the Poes cast baleful influence? Couldn’t say with certainty, but neighbor boys did dig a hole in the woods with a board over it that read “Preamature” Burial, into which victims were cast. Corman and AIP had at least these community incidents to answer for.

House of Usher was AIP’s first to crack the carriage trade. Grown-ups actually went to see it (including my parents on first-run, itself an anomaly). Stench of saucermen and killing shrews would be cleansed by Poe as source, Price as star. Who knows, percentage terms AIP set might even be collected from showmen now that the company was moving to a higher bracket. Success was no flash in pans, for it was 1963 and The Haunted Palace before dip set in. Comedy had by then snuck into the series, making it harder to play straight afterward. Vincent Price was inclined toward humor anyway, so likely saw The Raven and ultimate Goldfoot-ing as progress. Latter has him strapping Frankie Avalon, or was it Dwayne Hickman?, to the familiar Pit/Pendulum device. Hold on, though, because Price could still apply himself where need arose, as with assured capture of dual personalities in The Haunted Palace (good guy VP inherits titular digs from warlock grandad, then is possessed by malevolent spirit of same). I thought in 1963 he deserved Academy recognition for the work, a conviction renewed this week (what did Gregory Peck have that Vince didn’t?).

Every state has tourist sites. Ours is the Biltmore House in Asheville. They made parts of The Swan there, also others since. You can walk through it and picture Vincent Price as a tour guide. I’d like to think there were prior tenants buried alive in a crypt below and we might descend with torches to locate them, but a sixty-dollar admission can go but so far. To think hurry-up sets by Daniel Haller approached real-world grandeur like this … illusion-making seldom got better than with the Poes. But perhaps I’m too generous. As with most of what is seen early in life, sentiment overcomes reason. The Poes were flowers to bloom beautiful, then die wilted, at least until Blu-Ray rescued them. They argue best the necessity of seeing widescreen films on a wide screen. Something cheerful just occurs to me … the Poes, in fact most scope shows, might never go begging again. TV sets long ago adapted to wide (could I purchase a square screen even if I wanted one?). Scope-as-shot seems mostly to turn up that way, only caveat an occasional crop to 1.85 (is that still HBO policy?), or an ancient transfer, like with TCM when they inflict us with The Big Fisherman or a Fox that hasn’t been fixed (Bernadine). Cue then, my oft-repeated mantra that the Golden Age for classics was not the chop-shop 60’s or 70’s, but right now.

Friday, June 14, 2019

3-D Screens A-Poppin'

Jivaro and More On Tap From 3-D Film Archive

I wonder if anyone suggested to Rhonda Fleming that she was born to be photographed in 3-D. Would she have been flattered if they had? Was a same observation made to Arlene Dahl? Did they say of Rhonda and Jivaro ... See Her Titian Tresses in Technicolor! Having watched Jivaro and Sangaree, both gloriously available in restored depth, I am put to wondering if Fleming and Dahl were perhaps the same person. They seem to have bathed in a same fountain of youth, being here still to reminisce on Paramount chest-beaters top-billing Fernando Lamas. Lamas was made fun of on Saturday Night Live a generation ago, but manfully bestrides the stereo-screen. People might be forgiven for thinking Jivaro and Sangaree are the same movie. They are very much beats of a same 3-D heart as maintained at Paramount, tailwinds from a fad declared irrelevant before they could even be released. Thing about late 3-D was fact they were technically better than earlier and more famed exemplars of the process. Technicians were learning on the job, their reward unfortunately a kick in the pants when a fickle public tired of their vaunted process. By then, 3-D was declared fittest for kids or dumbbells, when the real dumbbells were showmen who failed to master presentation of the process. 

I would argue that Bob Furmanek and the 3-D Archive team are depth's truest salvation. Their transfers have introduced not a few of us to perfected 3-D. For me at least, there were mostly gremlins before. I had a 16mm red-green print of Revenge Of The Creature that was faded just enough to null the effect. There I sat wearing paper glasses and regarding level I’d sunk to as a collector to have been chivied into a purchase so unwise. I'd largely given up on 3-D until Furmanek’s crew got to work in earnest and dredged titles figured not to see light of depth again. Research says Jivaro never had a 3-D release, so what this Blu-Ray gives is a sixty-five year delayed World Premiere. Worth the wait? I’d say so, if one’s bag is backlot jungles, treasure hunt through same, Brian Keith fighting unfair, Lon Chaney being obnoxious and walloped for it, plenty more. Pine/Thomas produced, like all of theirs Jivaro is pitched to crowd satisfaction, which it still delivers. I had plentiful fun watching. Furmanek and archivists continue digging their own treasure. Their next is one that few knew existed, being made in Mexico, seldom seen stateside, and starring Caesar Romero and Katy Jurado. It is part of 3-D Rarities --- Volume Two, and will be buttressed with shorts, animation, ads, numerous deep screen sensations. 3-D Film Archive has a Kickstarter page, their goal more than met, but noteworthy is fact that the more they get in donations, the more loaded this fresh volume will be, so for even more in 3-D, by all means go over and give.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

How Close Attention Do We Ever Pay?

George Stevens Goes To The Movies

Directors knew that what happened after shooting wrapped and prints gone out was not a thing they could control. Maybe George Stevens felt that reality hardest for taking his films most serious, this all a more after the war where each project wrung life’s blood from him. Stevens' control went far as reels put on delivery trucks, but no further. From there, he and all directors were at the mercy of showmen, and projectionists they hired. Most theatres, and certainly television, was where movies went to die. Stevens did Quixotic bid to save A Place In The Sun from network shears when the Paramount feature tube-debuted on 3/12/66. His was a Pyrrhic win, but done on principal, like many a vain gesture. What Stevens saw coming can be glimpsed in A Place In The Sun where Montgomery Clift and Shelly Winters share balcony view of a movie that fights losing battle with distractions inherent in the ritual of crowding with strangers to watch. The scene is comical on one hand, sad on the other. These folks are more for connecting with each other than w/ shadows on a screen. Clift glimpses Winters in the dark and slides over, her his focus from there on, a fresh sailor in an opposite seat dealt out of the contest.

Stevens’ camera pulls back from the couple to reveal the mass, several of whom react to a kiss scene from a feature we don’t see. Boys do the finger-in-mouth pop understood to have been part of theatre-going ritual at the time. Was lovemaking on screens always so ridiculed? There seemed always a joker in full deck of filled auditoria in those days. Has viewing courtesy improved since? I doubt it. They just have other things to jeer at now. Stevens confirms a balcony as make-out site, one couple twisted round each other and breaking their clinch only when house lights come on. Clift and Winters are but slightly embarrassed to sit behind the pair, for it’s moviegoing fact of life. Stevens knew and was resigned to A Place In the Sun put before audiences like this. What good was his mightiest effort where these were eventual consumers, yet Stevens gave of his best, even if viewership too often went heedless.

Not that Stevens disdained his audience. He spoke to regard at least for behaved viewers in an interview conducted by Robert Hughes in 1967: “This is what a theatre does so well. People gathered in a large group, finding a little something about themselves. When an audience was truly moved, it was absolutely quiet. They were in a communion because they were learning the truth about themselves. They were there for discovery, not entertainment. They say film is a narcotic, an escape. But when film was done right, it asked real questions: Who am I? What am I? Why do I do this? Real theatre and film is therapy for the audience.” Stevens wanted his crowd to pay attention. Nothing less would do. Days serving light souffle were over for him. A Place In the Sun is a demanding film, enough so to be bent by critical revision since 1951. Maltin’s guide gives it but three stars: “seems outdated” … “downright absurd,” thanks in part to Raymond Burr’s “fiery” performance as a prosecuting D.A.

But Stevens knew his first-run mob well, and catered to it. Ultra close-up love scenes between Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor sent otherwise downer Sun into profit. Teens flocked for embraces more intense than films of their limited experience. Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer, writing The Movies, asked Stevens about this in 1956, A Place In the Sun among the authors' survey of then-recent features. Seems those “huge close-ups … ‘sent’ youth … who knew not the days of Vilma Banky and Ronald Colman,” to which Stevens simply responded, “They’ll fall for anything.” Had the director, by then in his late forties, gone deeper cynical? Or maybe those finger pops still rang in his ears, a tinnitus-like hazard of watching films with the great unwashed. And what about Banky and Colman? They were “remembered not” in 1956, and less so over sixty years since. Far as I know, there is only one of their co-starring vehicles in circulation, The Winning Of Barbara Worth, itself untypical of the team’s romance-centered output. Images below, from The Night Of Love, speak clearer to what inspired Stevens. Everything old, he knew, could be made new again.

Stevens would have loved TCM. They never interrupt his movies, or anyone’s, with advertising. Latter, plus concern over cuts, was the bone of contention with NBC. Never mind concentrating at a theatre … here was presentation with all things stacked against it (ads, dissolves lopped off, assorted mayhem). TCM does a best they can with reality they’ve got, which is home-watching with lights on, people and pets in and out of the room, breaks to get eats and then void what you’ve eaten. Words Stevens spoke in his '67 interview seem almost poignant now: "(A Place In the Sun) was designed with a form similar to a symphony, with its moods and interludes, and alternate changes of pace … With all that at work, audiences had a real chance to accept the film’s meaning, for its meaning to creep into their hearts.” Might A Place In the Sun properly creep before a modern-day theatre audience, provided they come without “devices” to distract them more completely than even NBC did in 1966? Maybe Fathom Events should offer A Place In the Sun and let us find out. It’s no secret that many films register powerfully and unexpectedly when projected on a large screen before a filled house. Considering that George Stevens designed his film for just an environment, could A Place In the Sun still work the magic he instilled in 1951?
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