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Thursday, August 29, 2019

Chaplin and Keaton Celebrate Old Times

Theatres As Once They Were: A Night In The Show and Spite Marriage

Not a few comedians born in the 19th century dominated a next century’s humor. Better even than stage traditions they brought forward was re-creation, faithful by all appearance, of a performing world that formed them, but was no more. Of examples, more than I could list, are a pair Charlie Chaplin, and later Buster Keaton, did: A Night In The Show and Spite Marriage, both enjoyable as documentary or comedy. They played to a patronage that knew a stage-centered world the movies had or would supplant. Variety still was strong when A Night In The Show was released in 1915; there was even remnant of stock companies by 1929 when Spite Marriage came out. Both films, plenty good and funny even if we ignore context, give life to a period we’ll not see as there were no cameras or recorders to capture it. Talent who remembered put what they could into these and other meditations on ways of entertainment gone past. Road life must have been for most part a joy, based on upbeat depiction from Chaplin, Keaton, and scores of others who joined memories to film. Need we ask if live performing was more fulfilling than doing the act for anonymous watchers who'd see it on screens? There’s why the most vivid, often wistful, chapters in autobiographies revolve around early life on stage. Begin with Chaplin … Keaton … the ribbon goes endlessly from there.

A Night In The Show was for me the funniest Chaplin so far seen (as of 1970, in 8mm from Blackhawk for $11.98). I knew it was based on a skit he had headlined for English Music Halls and later US vaudeville. Mumming Birds was what put Chaplin over in a big way, his drunk act a wow, and natural for him to re-do for movies, only now he could double effect by playing the inebriate plus a disturber in the gallery. I wondered at age sixteen if theatre-going was really like this in ye vanished age. There wasn’t real-life footage to confirm or deny; you had to take history books and old folk’s word for what went on so far back. Later reading taught that yes, “theatre” as it encompassed variety, legit performance too, could get wild and wooly. Even Shakespeare and opera got the hook from audiences aroused to self-expression. Much of mischief was contained after a first half of the 1800's when crowd demonstration hit a peak. Managers more vigilant took the ginger out of “gallery gods” that once ran shows from an onlooker’s distance. A first rule of polite vaudeville was to make environments safe for women and their children. A family-friendly place could swell its till way past receipts gotten from libertines on the loose. Chaplin with A Night In The Show looked back to time before his time (at least in the US) where watchers dealt ruckus to acts that displeased them, be it tomatoes, dead chickens or other fowl, whatever abuse bad performance had coming.

Mumming Birds on Stage, Later To Be Film-Adapted by Chaplin as A Night In The Show

What got me was behavior that seemed outrageous on the one hand, believable on the other. There would still have been playhouses, smallest-time vaudeville, in 1915, crowds taking liberty not permitted at sites where decorum held sway. First, Chaplin’s venue is small, a theatre in miniature, where you can imagine chaos turned loose (Fred Karno’s stage-upon-a-stage, where Chaplin romped in Mumming Birds, was its own unique creation). Cheap seats seemed a license for base conduct, and to such a place, it seems odd to see Charlie arrive in formal dress. He figured, I guess, that this would enhance comedy, and put him in starker contrast to the rowdy he also played. We must ask, though, if crowds comport better even in our own enlightened age? I admit to being part of a frisky matinee crowd when the Liberty hosted King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1963. My group of a half-dozen, so loud as to merit a pitch-out, were warned of getting just that unless we calmed down. So how much progress did this represent since 1915? Consider today's knowingly rude audience members who carry devices into theatres on which they text or chatter during movies. A Night In The Show Charlie walks onstage to interact with, or assault, the performers. This happened lots once upon a time. Actors gone amiss with a line of Shakespeare ran risk of watchers stepping up to give reproof. Audiences were once divided by ticket pricing, more so by class. Box seating was for swells, the pit for ones who aspired to that, or escape from chaos of the gallery section, where hard benches prevailed and company was coarse. Chaplin gets laughs by letting his gallery group rain fruit and sprayed water upon victims in the pit, a very-real hazard of sitting below the balcony in an era before reforms were imposed.

Spite Marriage might be characterized as Buster Keaton’s Romance Of The Stock Companies. No film I know of captures so well the magic local players brought to communities where they did role after role to achieve something very like stardom within confines of their small town or city. Stock companies disappeared by inches. It’s said there were 2,500 of them in 1910. Feature-length movies made inroads so that by the Great War, far less survived, let alone thrived. Still, there were ones that hung on, if on a modest scale and with less revenue for members to divide. Clark Gable got his start with a stock company, as did many others who later did films. We see echoes of stock in Playmaker groups even if these are composed mostly of volunteers. A great writer, Edward Wagenknecht, born 1900 (and lived till 2004!), had a book called As Far As Yesterday, where he recalled growing up in Chicago and being enamored of the stock companies, and in particular an actress named Marie Nelson, “locally famous and nationally almost unknown.” Stock work was the hardest there was, and for never enough money. What was fame where you had to remain within county lines to enjoy it?

Dorothy Sebastian in Spite Marriage is Buster’s actress ideal. He is starstruck as are other eligible men of the town. When a small part player drops out, Buster takes his place in a Civil War melodrama to be near her, and makes a shamble of it. Backstage foolery of a first third are Spite Marriage’s comic highlight. I want to think that Keaton devised the most knowing gags, but I suspect all hands well understood stage struggle, on-set suggestion boxes filled to overflowing. The director was Edward Sedgewick, he of years with a vaudeville family act and writing for comedy. I can see he and Buster laying track for all of Spite Marriage, at least this marvelous section where Keaton gave on screen the kind of exhibition he had spent much of a lifetime performing on stage (Buster as a child did melodrama in addition to slap-down comedy, playing Little Lord Fauntleroy on occasion, and a doomed boy in East Lynne). You get a sense of everyone in Spite Marriage reliving some past or other. For all the story’s drift toward a less engaging second half, this affectionate salute-to-stock rates a favorite among Keaton work for Metro. It is also a record of how a typical Civil War melodrama (“Carolina”) might have played before an audience that knew the format and wasn’t inclined to laugh at scenes done straight. It is only where Buster bungles his part that they break up (our cue to do so as well). The melodrama is not ridiculed for being melodrama, 1929 still short of a time where it was incumbent upon crowds to laugh at anything a past generation took seriously. Don’t forget that Uncle Tom’s Cabin had only lately been (1927) a Universal Super-Jewel played with all due reverence. Spite Marriage is a priceless artifact of days when traditions from before a turn of the century could still walk hand-in-hand with modern modes of entertainment, even motion pictures with sound, or in this case, recorded music and effects.

First-runs furthered the accommodation. Three acts of vaudeville (“Direct From Chicago’s Loop”) accompany Spite Marriage as well as three short subjects, several with talk, to make up a “Mammoth 7 Unit Show” at the Rex Theatre (above ad). This, mind you, was a One Day Only show, a populace figured to put all else aside so as not to miss a grandest of all stage-screen aggregations. Imagine the sheer logistics of moving all this talent and their props, then reels to-from the booth, a projectionist’s nightmare, as was customary in those days. No wonder they got up a strongest union to protect sanity of membership. It would have pleased Buster Keaton to see the brotherhood of vaude artists still getting work, and on a same bill with him. Line-ups like what the Rex had were proof that variety was not dead so long as audiences spoke up for live acts with willingness to pay for seeing them. There were even tab versions of melodrama on some bills, and who knows but what local stock companies didn’t contribute to the live programs that went with Spite Marriage and other features that needed propping with something other than film. Spite Marriage is available on DVD in a box with The Cameraman and Free and Easy. It streams at Vudu in HD, which I have not yet seen. TCM has not so far run a High-Def transfer. Chaplin’s A Night In The Show can be had in a beyond-belief transfer both in an Essanay Blu-Ray box set, and as an extra with Criterion’s Limelight. You’d not dream for these last 104 years that anything so old and printed-to-pieces could look so good.

Monday, August 26, 2019

30's Cartoon Revue

Looney, Merry, Silly ... But Funny?

How important were cartoons to exhibitors and their audience? I mean before Mickey Mouse made them meaningful. I realize Felix the Cat was popular, but how popular? Did a Felix on the bill tip decisions on which theatre to attend? Mickey certainly did. Cartoons needed star personalities to be something other than faceless fillers. Warner cartoons were no opposition to Disney before Porky Pig arrived with at least potential to challenge the leader. I’d guess Popeye was a first serious threat to Mickey primacy. Saturday clubs for him fazed out many of Mouse clubs long in place. Bugs Bunny led wartime favorite polls. Cartoon characters got less grab at the brass ring than live act strugglers who flamed in, then out. Look at these casualties and try picturing even one of them: Beans, Foxy, Tom and Jerry (the first, and forgotten, not the cat/mouse), Gabby (in fact two, one at WB, the other for Paramount), Scrappy, Buddy … even Disney had duds, or else we’d see Clarabelle Cow action figures at Disney World gift stands. I got out Volume Six of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection to review a disc (of four) devoted to early effort of Warners to crack Disney’s code. Most aren’t great, as known to me since late 50’s teevee, but emeralds are there, if flawed. None are without interest where it’s study of the process you’re after, which was what drew me.

Warners did not start out doing cartoons in-house, farming them out instead to an independent who had an in-law on WB payroll. Leon Schlesinger also helped (dollar-wise) on completion of The Jazz Singer, so it’s said, that gamble making him a right guy to bookkeepers. For so little as WB was willing to spend for these reels (nickel/dimes for Schlesinger to work with), you wonder if they regarded cartoons more as necessary evil than potential for profit and pleasure. Staff was rife with relatives, as if cartoon shops were dumping ground for family membership that couldn’t pack gear elsewhere. This was true all-round town, Disney not an exception. Freelance animators with workspace more like coat closets were always on alert for major distributor deals that could get their work seen. Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising were two who wore down sidewalks before lucking into arrangement with Schlesinger to draw the cartoons he’d supply to Warners. Peddler Leon made no pretense to creative input, but he was wired to the money, and that made him boss over animating talent for fifteen years of WB cartooning before selling out for more cash than combined income of hired talent he underpaid from a start (Schlesinger wouldn’t invite any of help for weekend sails because he didn’t want “poor people on my boat”).

Earliest WB cartoons are mostly of “academic interest,” and best taken in that spirit should you sit for them. Bosko was a first try at star-making, all rubber limbs and impossible gags. He was a blank so far as personality, the humor largely humorless. Still, there was potential to do better. Thing about cartoons was they had to progress. Disney knew this best of anyone, which was why he went to Silly Symphonies in addition to Mickeys, and then embraced Technicolor. Warners and the rest were more-less sweepers behind elephant that was Walt, imitating what he did and hoping some of his reward might splatter their way. You can look at these copy-cats (so many!) and realize what a cynical enterprise animation then was. How could it be otherwise when theatres thought so little of them? Mickey Mouse was the only cartoon name they could display on a marquee. Suppose customers ever asked if there was a new Bosko on the bill? I look at early WB and think filler, chaser, loss leader … and then comes a clever patch as reminder that things would improve. If Disney had a significant rival, it was Max Fleischer, who had wit, fun, and irreverence, plus Betty Boop, and then Popeye. That’s two stars to Walt’s one. Fleischer cartoons were bolder than Disney content-wise, but aped him still with “Color Classics,” a group less committed to originality than keeping pace with picture postcards by the far superior Silly Symphonies.

Warners tried that route too, with Merrie Melodies. These were less lovely than energetic, which meant they were funny where Symphonies were generally not. MM’s also had songs where Disney emphasized music. Warner asset was hits introduced in their 42nd Street and follow-ups that could migrate to Merrie Melodies and sprite them up, whereas Disney relied, had to rely, on tunes either Public Domain (classical, lullabies), or licensed for cheap. WB's was animation arrival of synergy, as in, for instance, Smile, Darn Ya, Smile, with a title tune spun endlessly for seven minutes. Idea was your stopping by the music store on ways home to buy the song sheet. Such dimes added up, and all of a sudden it looked like cartoons might pay off after all for Warner. They owned a large library of music, and these cheap reels kept them sung and whistled far past play-off of what Golddig chapter had introduced them. It’s the reason we know “Shuffle Off To Buffalo” and “We’re In The Money,” even if not mindful of other popular songs from 1932-33. These and others, were, of course, borrowed hits, none originating in Warner cartoons, to which Disney reasserted his top-of-heap status with the smash heard a first time, but endlessly thereafter, in The Three Little Pigs. The song was Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Wolf, which summed up Depression woe in an upbeat way, plus giving all, as in every listener, a ditty to stick in the unconscious even if you weren’t singing it aloud. Cultural impact had never been so expressed as by this. Response to The Three Little Pigs may have been the moment Disney realized he could make Snow White a go.

To sort of summarize, then: Mickey Mouse, advantage Disney. This was how most people identified cartoons as a whole … Is there a Mickey Mouse today? No other character had meaningful presence, except Betty Boop, then more meaningfully, Popeye. And even highbrows loved Mickey, all of celebrities too, him called a “Best Actor” in Hollywood, and they weren’t kidding. Silly Symphonies as High Art that folks also enjoyed got enhanced more thanks to Technicolor. Preference was made manifest by Academy Awards going routinely to Disney through the 30’s. Many gave up even trying to compete with him. WB did by being sassier, but Fleischer was there all along, though grit and urbanity of his may have distanced middle America, Warners’ a wider reach at least until Fleischer moved to Florida and saw ragged edge smoothed off (not a good thing, says his latter-day following). Warners to me falls into pre-Porky, post-Porky halves, at least with regard the 30’s. Former has the growth pains, some of it mighty painful, but none less than fascinating. Here is where we mine poor Bosko and hapless Buddy. I actually knew collectors who valued 16mm Buddy above all else. That was because he was so tough to locate. Watch some of his (three included on the Golden Collection --- Volume Six) and you will know why. Maybe three Buddys is enough toward satisfying our curiosities and being done with him. We could wonder how anyone imagined this character would click.

I got a Buddy cartoon in 1975, Viva Buddy, a trade for my black-and-white print of The Three Little Pigs (under heading of taking what you could get in those days). Viva Buddy was unique for pitting him against a Wallace Beery-caricatured Pancho Villa, a nifty notion I miss for not having seen the cartoon since then. There is a horrid transfer on You Tube, but other than that, Viva Buddy is nowhere. It stands as my favorite Buddy cartoon, which doesn’t say a lot, except that any lobster may hide a pearl. It took Porky Pig to make a star for Warners. To lead a cartoon market needed not one, but a stable of faces an audience would know and respond to. Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, numerous others to come, supplied that. Disney in the end had not so rich a group and was anyway focused on features. I can scarcely name a Disney short from 40’s forward to rival the best from Warners. Could these directors have lasted there?: Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones (I understand Jones tried, briefly). Rooting through 60+ cartoons in Volume Six reaffirmed notions from child era … 1. The WB B/W’s are curiosities, some good, all interesting, 2. Clampett, Tashlin, Avery, and Jones are the sure-fire directors for WB, their names assurance that I won’t bail out, and 3. Robert McKimson was a great animator, should have kept doing that instead of directing, because he just isn’t natured funny as the others (his Leghorns fine, largely because Foghorn’s voice works so well). All of foregoing are matters of opinion, of course, and certainly among animation following, can differ wildly. Perhaps I'll go an opposite direction when next I look at these (mood of the moment has much to do with enjoyment of cartoons), but who knows when that might be? 

Thursday, August 22, 2019

When Fandom Was Forever

Souvenirs Of Show-Going Long Ago

Above sits Myron Healey at the 1974 Western Film Festival in Memphis. Monte Hale is beside him. Mr. Healey was male support to Phyllis Coates as (the) Panther Girl Of The Kongo. I wonder if any of 520 fans attending Memphis ragged him for being in such a dud serial. Probably not, because for this nostalgia-driven lot, no serial was bad. I lately watched all twelve chapters of Panther Girl (not at once) and then came across coverage of the ’74 con in an issue of Film Collector’s Registry, a tabloid for those in the peculiar habit of hunting 16mm prints of films they loved as children. These folks knew who fest guest Kirk Alyn was because they were old enough to have seen his Superman chapter-plays theatrically, which means they were the only people to know them period, since both serials went out of circulation after 1948 and 1950, respectively. All we sprites could see was trailers duped off dupes that floated along dealer’s row at Memphis, Charlotte, Houston, elsewhere (the two serials are since on DVD). 1974 may have been a peak of interest in things nostalgic, FCR reporting that over 3,000 attended Houston that year (“the best ever!”). I never experienced a show that big. By the time I got in the swing of it (from 1976 forward), there were diminishing returns, if slower coming. Reports here made me realize what a boon these cowboy and cliffhanger meets were in their prime.

Imagine being in 50’s theatres to witness the corrosion of serials. It was assumed, at least by children, that they would never end, but insiders knew better. Program westerns were already going, soon to be gone. Panther Girl Of The Kongo had to disappoint on profound levels. It was, as they say, strictly from hunger, so threadbare as to be insulting. Three or four guys took pen to earlier and better Republic serials … now one writer (Ronald Davidson) did it all, as did directing Franklin Adreon, who also was “associate producer.” Once upon lusher times there were two helmsmen behind each chapter-play. The fallow decade saw increasing reason to stay home and look at The Lone Ranger or Cisco Kid on television, or Gene Autry’s vid program, which fans said, still say, was improvement on his features (didn’t matter; by 1955, Gene was off theatre screens). But it was important to get out of the house, join friends downtown for movies, never mind that so many fell down as entertainment. Social advantages made up for that, and there was always popcorn plus candy. I wasn’t there, so am projecting --- imagining, more like it --- though I’ve talked to enough elders who were present to feel what it was like to see a happy era die. I’d know a similar, if lesser, gloom in the early 70’s when the Liberty finally did away with Saturday double features (and we kept them longer than most any small town around).

This was what Houston and Memphis and the rest wanted to hang on to. Aging men (never women, unless in tolerant company of husbands that never grew up, bless both) came for these three or four days to relive Saturdays they thought would always stay a same. Celebrity lineups dazzled because so many were still alive from 30/40’s heyday. The 1974 Dallas show had Buster Crabbe, Duncan Renaldo (Trader Horn!), George Pal … on and on. At Memphis, stuntman for forty years David Sharpe mock-fought Billy Benedict and did a backwards flip. Lash LaRue was there because Lash was everywhere through peak period of star/fan shows (he’d give whip exhibitions --- did anyone trust him to flick cigarettes from their mouth or apples off their head?). The Lone Ranger Rides Again was shown twice because it was so rare and practically no one had seen it since 1939. Guests moved among fans, none anchored behind signing tables where all of movement was by assistants collecting twenty-dollar bills, as would become case at later autograph shows. So long as health held out, most old-timers were pleased to do these shows. Younger ones seemed vigorous as when they were screen-active, Jock Mohoney in Houston only eleven years past Tarzan’s Three Challenges. I got to meet Jock at a mid-80’s Raleigh show, this in lieu of customary Charlotte setting for reasons forgotten. The dealer’s space was like an airplane hanger and as arid. Jock was well into spirit of the con and yelled out “Bob, you old queer bait” to one collector older than he was, and it seemed like good a time as any to ask about doubling Errol Flynn in a hazardous leap from top-of-a-staircase to crash upon Robert Douglas’ double in Adventures Of Don Juan. Jock was ten minutes explaining it thoroughly to me and now I can’t remember a thing he said. Was I too star-struck to retain any of our conversation?

Stars who survived became bigger stars at collector shows. Panther Girl Phyllis Coates had wit and attitude to go with total recall of a past career. I lately looked at Filmfax plus a Tom Weaver interview for her take on that benighted serial. She lost part of hearing thanks to a rifle that went off in her ear, and had to have penicillin every time she came out of nasty water in Republic’s backlot lake. Would it have been worth all this even to be in a good serial? A tougher breed, I’d guess, but you could say that about all the names who flew east for fan jamborees. Side query: Were there ever western/serial shows in California? --- and if not, why not? Sometimes a more mainstream face would show up and regret doing so mere steps into hotel lobbies. Virginia Mayo didn’t look happy with Raleigh. One old duff in cowboy garb asked if she’d pose under the “Jimmy Wakely Clock,” to which I heard her reply, “What the hell is a Jimmy Wakely clock, and who the hell is Jimmy Wakely?” How soon greatness is forgot. Actually, the JW clock had a kind of obscure majesty. I wondered at the time how it came to be, and I’d ask now what (the hell …, as Virginia would have said) became of it? Engaged fans of forty-five years ago have disappeared surely as that Jimmy Wakely clock. I refer for instance to the Max Terhune Appreciation Society, founded in 1973 by a film collector named Minard Coons. Minard revered Max from when latter and his funny dummy supported cowboys in the late 30’s. They got to be friends after Max retired. There was also a 70’s chapter of the Buck Jones Rangers, endorsed by Buck’s daughter, with a larger latter-day membership that you’d expect for a star deceased since 1942. These then, were but two instances of fan loyalty and how long it could thrive.

Those parades have passed now. No more shows, at least ones dedicated to matinee days. Film Collector’s Registry is gone too, long since as with The Big Reel and Film Collector’s World. Classic Images comes a closest to keeping lamps lit. I look at old ads in these papers and think how we had to climb Everest to own movies common as dirt today, and as cheap. A dealer named Joe Rogal had stuff that collector dreams were made of. I remember a time, 35 or so years ago, when he walked into a Columbus lobby with Mogambo on IB Tech. $400 and it’s yours. Imagine paying that for any one movie now. Had I wanted to own Panther Girl Of The Kongo, it would have cost as much. A Blu-Ray, on the other hand, runs $19.95, for which image quality compensates for lack of pride in ownership. Collectors wanted to possess movies in large part because no one else could have them, that hobby’s coin of the realm. Notice everybody gushing over the 50th anniversary of Woodstock this month? Well, these serial/western fans had their Woodstocks every summer, in fact numerous times each summer, wherever promoters could book a hotel and inveigle past stars to fly in and feel the love.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Were They Fish or Fowl?

Polly Moran Prays for Continuing Opportunity to Dilute Otherwise Creepy Shows Like London After Midnight

Melodrama, Meet Comedy --- Comedy, Meet Melodrama

Begone, Comic Relief!, Says Erik The Phantom to Horror Neutralizer Snitz Edwards

It was a steadfast rule since the 19th century: Never serve any genre straight. We wonder at, in fact deplore, horror films with comic relief, comedies that take romance detour, westerns where they sing and have dagnabit sidekicks. Why couldn’t our clowns and monsters be presented pure? I assumed it was Hollywood’s failing, a symptom of studio wrongheadedness, all dancing to discordant tune. But maybe we bring unreasonable expectation to these films we claim to treasure. Must they abide by our modern measure for genre entertainment? I watched Mark of the Vampire with Bonnie Scotland to ponder the issue, both hailing from 1935. These belong to a school that taught moderation in all things, be it scares or humor. An audience might exhaust on overdose of either. Such steps were taken because a public did have, and would express, its limit. Remember what became of Phantom of the Opera after test screenings over-spooked 1925 watchers? Comedy, lethal injection of it by current reckoning, thinned Phantom’s bitter porridge. Mark of the Vampire was guided by lessons taught in an earlier version of the same yarn, London After Midnight, which got a gelding in script stage and never contemplated its vampires as anything other than fake. London After Midnight’s lost status amounts to divine providence, for how could the movie approach allure of its surviving stills?

Laughs To The Left Of Her, Chills To The Right ... What's Laura La Plante To Do?

All melodrama from inception gave comic relief. The things would weigh too heavy otherwise. Stage plays for a hundred years were awash with virtue imperiled, farms seized, trains and buzz saws closing in. This was heightened emotion to relieve tedium of drudge work that ate ten at least of daily viewership hours. There was more leisure by the late-1800’s, but not much more. Suspense stirred by mellers was eased by frolic performed between acts, sometimes within the play itself. Movies hewed to habit kept by generations of stage-folk. Even Griffith saw sense of prevailing rules, his Way Down East very serious (Lillian Gish on the ice flow), except when it was not (all of Creighton Hale). The Cat and The Canary (1927) stayed scary until it was expedient to be otherwise (Creighton Hale again). No one questioned a mode of operation so ingrained. If anything, the 30’s only strengthened resolve to water our drinks. Mark of the Vampire is accurate marker of what London After Midnight had been, being a same story done the same, at least insofar as horror/hokum mix.

Where Fun Weighs Heavy On Modern Mark of the Vampire Fans
Filmmakers were sensitive not to rock a lot of boats. Dracula and Frankenstein stepped very near an edge that copy-cats stepped over, thus Freaks, Island of Lost Souls, and some others took licks from outraged sectors and were banned by some territories. Mark of the Vampire had enough foolery to be farce or fright, take your pick where promoting. There is Donald Meek entering soon after credits as a fluttery medico, and later Leila Bennett as a shrieking bird-brain of a servant. These were understood to prevent scares from being too intense. Again it is stills to a rescue, Bela Lugosi, and more-so, Bela Lugosi with Carroll Borland, plus Tod Browning as director, to suggest Mark of the Vampire means business. These were burned into consciousness of monster fandom years after the film came and went (and stayed largely gone). We figured Mark of the Vampire had to be good just for these morsels that didn’t move, but gripped us all the same.

Learning the score of stage-to-screen tradition taught many to forgive what seemed a monstrous cheat. No, these were not vampires. Vampires did not exist, even as visuals throughout Mark of the Vampire implied they did. What it needed, then, was reading between the frames, a same stealth applied to all films after the Code became stricter-enforced. Horror would stay hand-in-hand with comedy, especially at Universal. At least James Whale wove it better into narrative as if humor was his idea rather than foolishness imposed on him. Melodrama would more-less concede by the second wave at Universal, support staff there to fill nonsense need as though horror differed not from westerns, mystery, or straight-up comedy. You’d think that all we wanted was to laugh, but even dedicated funsters had to be tempered, especially so where feature-length contained them. Again it was to spare us exhaustion. Were the Marx Brothers too funny in Duck Soup? Fine, A Night at the Opera can fix that. Were Laurel and Hardy an excess beyond two-reels? Then give them “plot” to sustain Bonnie Scotland, first of a features-only policy to guide a rest of their career.

Weak-As-A-Kitten William Janney Supplies Romance Relief to Laurel and Hardy Antics

How Do Tears and Gloom Get Into a Laurel-Hardy Feature? Because Producers Believed We Wanted Them ...
and Maybe in 1935, We Did.

L&H had gone long routes before, perhaps to better outcome than Bonnie Scotland, but this was wayward in the extreme, a romance between non-entities (William Janney and June Lang) that pushed L&H off center-stage, at least in preview versions agreed by all to need fixing. Here again was serving a balanced meal of genres as it was assumed a public wanted them. I can’t say Hal Roach was wrong because I wasn’t there in 1935 to judge, but success of Bonnie Scotland, and for that matter Mark Of The Vampire, satisfy me that these were what customers preferred. Where do we get off imposing our druthers on viewership of 84 years past? I can’t pretend to know what went down best with those people. Cue past is a foreign country that novelist L.P. Hartley talked about: They really did "do things differently there." Maybe romance was the vegetable we needed with meat that was Laurel and Hardy. Does this also explain why cowboys sang? Go to the animal shelter and you get mostly mongrels. Watch these old films and it’s largely the same. Therein may lie the struggle we have at swelling the rank of fans. Who will show Mark of the Vampire or Bonnie Scotland except to the already converted? 50’s TV distributors had the right idea of shaving the L&H feature down to three (or was it four?) shorts to fit in half-hour slots plus omit sub-plotting that served its purpose in 1935, but was not needed now. Purists wanted Bonnie Scotland intact, so thanks to TCM-HD, DVD, streaming and the rest, we again must eat our peas as part of the Laurel-Hardy meal. It is a price fans will go on paying so long as there is interest in this team.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Brand New and a Must-See

Once Upon a Time Is a Socko Hollywood Fairy Tale

A film by a kindred spirit, made seemingly just for me. I never saw 161 minutes go by so fast. First show, opening day, had sixteen of us at a theatre less than seven years open. Odd thing, I hadn’t gone in most of those, the last occasion for a movie about a heroic dog … forgot the title, and there are too many heroic dogs lately to look it up. $13.50 bought admission, a medium popcorn, and a lemon-flavor drink, to which I appended a Baby Ruth from the Run-In. Never figured on such joy from a new film. Only down spout was a projected image too dim and minus proper contrast. An exhibitor friend tells me this is widespread among theatres gone to digital. Actually cheaper, he says, to replace the entire system than elements needed to restore light. Audiences are compliant because most don’t realize how much better the show should look. Much of production effort therefore goes to naught. This appears to be a nationwide quandary, not just local blight. Consequence is a faded, washed out look to everything. Folks, it seems, are adjusted to a slow fade. The "imaging screen" (chipset) within most projection units is only warranted for five or so years. Digital changeover having been achieved six-seven years ago in most theatres means they’ve passed the factory-backed life span, and it simply costs too much to replace them. Theatres continue with compromised imagery until it gets bad enough to force an upgrade. In the meantime, movies lose color saturation and vibrancy, the chipset bleaching out and blacks turning to gray. Fast rule since nickelodeons: management will not do a lick more than what’s essential to get by. No squawks, no sweat. Where money’s a factor, we suck up what venues can afford. Happier view will come when Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood takes Blu-Ray aim at home screens, or Netflix gets it.

Tarantino invents a saga of fifty years ago. Ones of us old enough know historic names, but who else will? What is nostalgia for the writer-director may be dry dust for his audience. Again, Once Upon a Time plays like a personal gift to like minds, but what if someone had made a big-budget film in 1973, when I was nineteen, about convulsive era that was 1922 when William Desmond Taylor was offed and Arbuckle stood trial for manslaughter? A neat concept maybe, but would my parents have even found it relevant? I’m amazed at how much past we cling to. Rex Reed, fossil critic who at least knew the period first-hand, panned Once Upon a Time, for reasons I forget. Maybe he’s less sentimental for 1969 and knowing what a dingy year it essentially was. Tarantino does not shrink from grime, which to him came on wings of a counterculture that swept out what was left of the “good” Hollywood. No contradicting that, for at age fifteen and before, I mourned a seeming finish of movies to really care about. Break-up for me was 1968, during Fall of which I began reviewing films for a local sheet, and so saw virtually everything for remain of that year and through 1969. If H’wood had a worse annus horribilis, I’d challenge anyone to name it.

So like Rex, I know no wistful recall of late 60's movie-go. A best had by then evaporated: Connery as James Bond gone and an interloper in his place (reactionary me boycotted OHMSS), American-International sunk to bikers and drug culture (The Killers Three, Mary Jane, others). Lee Marvin stopped making good films after being my big-screen hero through 1967, and Hammer had increasingly tired blood. To review movies in 1968-69 was punishment even a $1.60 per column could not salve (sixty cents to get in the Liberty, a dollar to play critic). Check this list and decide how enviable my position was: The Stranger’s Return (“an assembly line of mangled corpses,” I said at the time), Skidoo (“Jackie Gleason wasted in a role no comedian could enliven”), Yellow Submarine (“I was unable to hear (The Beatles’) voices above those of a gang of sixth graders who insisted on joining in the chorus” --- a remark that got me in Dutch with Liberty management). Of The Wrecking Crew, a focal point of Once Upon a Time, I cited sets “where the viewer can actually see the overhead microphones,” but failed to mention Sharon Tate (still a starlet, not yet a most notable of filmland murder victims). My only rave for the whole of 1969 was The Wild Bunch.

Nick Adams Arrives in Japan to Star in Frankenstein Conquers The World

Once Upon a Time has Leonardo Di Caprio as a TV western star facing bleak 60’s prospect. Names have been suggested as to who inspired “Rick Dalton,” but the one I’d propose is Nick Adams, who had The Rebel (1959-61), then guesting on other series, a 1963 spike with Twilight Of Honor, which gave him an Academy Award nomination, and from there more guesting, and a brace of horror/sci-fi (his last a Mexican-made western) before premature passing at age 36 (on 2-7-68). I read somewhere that Nick used his acting fees to put a brother through medical school. He gave an interview to Modern Monsters magazine for their June 1966, Issue #2. I felt at the time he was a good guy for helping out a fledgling publication aimed at kids. Nick was adamant that Die, Monster, Die (“I wanted to do it. I liked the script when it was offered to me, and the part was a good one”), and Frankenstein Conquers the World, were not steps down (“People like horror films. I like ‘em. I’m not ashamed to admit it”). A heartfelt wrap to the interview saw MM thanking Adams for his willingness to work in such a frowned-upon genre. That moved me at twelve, still does. Once Upon a Time’s Rick Dalton has apprehension over Italo-westerns he's asked to headline, as I am sure many fading names did. We could, of course, name two dozen with a hit vid show in their past who were faced by a same stall by 1969.

The era had a doomed quality. Not just because of Manson, but so many of other casualties. I noted names evoked, some portrayed (Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen), and thought …they are all gone. Ones who turn up in Once Upon a Time that survive: Michelle Phillips, Connie Stevens --- are there more? Seeing Kurt Russell makes me marvel at his being here and still up for vigorous work. I gather he came of a stable background and kept clear of bad influence, but look at all those who did not. Yet somehow, Once Upon a Time stays upbeat, friendly, cheerful in fact to watch (constant radio-or-TV in the background evokes American Graffiti ). And yet there is undercurrent of dread, especially for a third act which we know will pay off on earlier Manson glimpses and a Psycho-scary bit where Brad Pitt visits the viper’s nest (an otherwise deserted western ranch where Charlie’s “family” dwells). Tarantino, bless him, spares us the final terror. The finish echos not only a previous Tarantino film, but a favor Howard Hawks did us with Red River. Everything pointed to John Wayne dying at the end, but Hawks simply said no, because who wants to see that? Tarantino has a same instinct for what audiences prefer. He is, by all accounts, an ongoing student of Hawks, and clearly learned from the master.

Hippies in Once Upon a Time are a vile lot. One of them has rotten teeth and slits Brad Pitt’s tire with a switchblade, for which Pitt bashes his face in. Now there is a level of crowd-pleasing we seldom get at movies today. I’ve not seen the counterculture take licks like this since Eastwood tortured Andy Robinson on the football field in Dirty Harry. I should have seen Tarantino’s spun-round third act coming. Let’s just say that Pitt and Leo take out the trash to popcorn sailing delight of viewers who wish real-life could be as satisfying. Again I fear for passage of that half-century. Does anyone born after earliest 60’s know of the Manson case, or Sharon Tate, let alone details of the slaughter? I avoided reading about it after a first '69 newspaper’s shock, and did not care to see Helter Skelter or those dreadful books (I frankly shrink from people who like to read about serial killers). Had Tarantino staged the actual event, I would have walked out. Again, this writer-director knows his business. I hear Once Upon a Time in Hollywood cracked $100 million this past weekend. I’d like it to do ten times that in a long run. All involved deserve the moon for such a crackerjack show.
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