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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Sci-Fi Coming Through Back Doors

Black-and-White Hammers Make Stealth Entry

Landmark Sci-Fi Buried Beneath Sexploitation
X --- The Unknown is recently out on Blu-Ray to join The Creeping Unknown (The Quatermass Xperiment) and Enemy From Space (Quatermass II).  Each were meant to follow up on science-fiction that had been popular on British television, feature treatments by Hammer so far well received in the home market, and getting US released through United Artists. The Creeping Unknown was widely seen in the states thanks to its placement behind popular The Black Sleep on 1956 double bills. Unknown got 8,302 bookings in the United States. Domestic rentals were $275,000, better than if the film went out as a single.  The Creeping Unknown had been called The Quatermass Xperiment in England, but “Quatermass” was a meaningless word, or name, in our parlance, and emphasis on “X” over Experiment was more an inside gag on UK censorship that again meant nothing to stateside patronage. Another Quatermass, retitled Enemy From Space, appeared on Fall ’57 schedules, 5,473 dates the limit, and way below The Creeping Unknown, but Enemy From Space, despite a luck-of-timing Sputnik tie-up, had not the advantage of combo placement with another genre title, this by ’57 a sour note for admissions. Crowds wanted their sci-fi two for one, or not at all. Even color Hammers or high profilers like The Fly came in pairs. X --- The Unknown arrived to US markets, first via RKO exchanges, these closing one-by-one as the company was dissolving, thus X saw limited exposure as co-feature to whatever was left of RKO inventory. There was a pressbook prepared that doubled X --- The Unknown with The Cyclops, a suggested ad shown below, but there weren’t many bookings, few enough, in fact, so as to enable Warner Bros. to take over X as an extra to their release of The Curse Of Frankenstein for schools-out 1957.

X --- The Unknown had a large advantage for back-seating with The Curse Of Frankenstein, a monster hit to shade Hammer output right to the mid-60’s when sexed up product from them demonstrated far bigger demand for Ursula Andress or Raquel Welch than vampires or wolf men. X was keyed to thinking man sensibility, a calm before or after storm that was Frankenstein with his eyeballs and brain insertions. I’d like knowing if X commanded focus from ‘57 viewership, a sort it clearly deserved for being well thought-through. Did souped-up teens and moppets pause their popcorn to hear Dean Jagger explain theories of energy let loose that no one could stop? You had to ponder X’s theme to be frightened by it, which raises a question of how conducive jammed first-run houses were to such level of concentration. Were there walkouts after Curse jolt that lured them in, or did X --- The Unknown hold attention for all of its 81 minutes in black-and-white? Our Liberty played the combo for Halloween 1957, months after Summer openings elsewhere, not unusual for back-of-line small towns, and note from the ad at right that The Curse Of Frankenstein ran alone for October 30’s Wednesday evening warm-up, X --- The Unknown joining the following day, and one more day after that. The Liberty ran The Curse Of Frankenstein again the following year, but did not invite back X --- The Unknown. Point is, Frankenstein scoring so large meant that, for most engagements, X --- The Unknown did too, a lot of folks seeing the latter that might have ignored it otherwise. X , like The Creeping Unknown, benefited from the company it kept.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

If He's Not The King of Cartoons, Who Is?

Tex Avery Switched On For Blu-Ray

Since when did we dub Tex Avery King of Cartoons? This, I believe, is the first time an animation director has had a Blu-Ray compilation dedicated to him. Avery was not modernly discovered till the 70’s, only barely then. His shorts weren’t televised intact before a Tom, Jerry, and Friends package went into mid-70’s syndication, having been prior-shown via network (mostly CBS), and shorn of main titles. Tex was sometimes credited as Fred Avery, and whilst at Warners, had his name left often off openings where cartoons were reissued. A favorite WB of mine was Hollywood Steps Out, which I bribed off a TV station employee and showed often at college, but who had directed it? Credits did not tell because there weren’t any, just a title. For me in the 70’s, and certainly the audience, that was enough. Rental catalogues were no help. Films Inc. distributed the MGM backlog, but did not make capitol of Avery cartoons. Their Rediscovering The American Cinema, which presumed to list all of classics within Films Inc. grasp, left animation off distinction’s plate, while UA/16, controlling pre-49 Warners, offered two, and only two, cartoon “Parades” dedicated to Tex Avery. These could be rented in 16mm, and on Eastman stock, subject to color fade or tilt toward red. To collect Warner cartoons was to scale a tall hill, MGM’s the Matterhorn. My best score was a pink, spliced-as-in-footage-gone, Tom and Jerry called Tee For Two, which I thought great because by then (1945), Hanna and Barbara were photostatting Avery pace and gags in their cat-mouse reels.

Word-of-mouth was what taught me of Tex. A NY collector showed up at an NC western con (early 80's) and tempted us with Leo lunacy the likes of which we’d not dream MGM capable of. Where had these howlers been hiding --- let alone from staid site of neutered Tarzans and de-humorized Our Gangs? It became imperative to have more of Avery … no, all of Avery, since it seemed no clucks emanated from this artist’s easel. Any short bearing Avery name was surefire. Movie nights rang upon thrill of cartoons all new to us and fresher than fresh. Were there ever seven so outlandish minutes as Red Hot Riding Hood? Outlaw 16’s ran generally to $35 per OK dupe, a bargain for laughs to surpass cartoons we collected before. Legit sources stayed unmindful of how great Tex Avery was. His work was long out of theatres, or so it seemed, but one 1979 night I did encounter Rock-A-Bye Bear as support to an Ursula Andress steam-bath about headhunters, the local venue having come by the 1954 cartoon who-knows-how, but no worry, it was a first, if inadvertent, exposure to Tex Avery in 35mm, and come to think of it, my last.

We too often forget that cartoons were once made for everyone, kids sure, but grown-ups too, and it was very much a mass and general audience that made stars of Mickey, Popeye ... and Red (Hot) Riding Hood, starring in a a white-hot series of naughty cartoons that everyone understood to be Tex Avery’s creation, not just industry-folk, but Mr./Mrs. Public plus offspring teeming through lobbies and seeing displays like this one on the left, Avery the prominent name and guarantor of corks-out laughter. He might have been MVP for MGM animation but for powerhouse team of Tom and Jerry, bona fide crowd-getters doing so over and over, eight at least to a year, while Avery, who got no closer to Hanna/Barbara than Droopy as a sustaining character, had to prove himself each time out with one-offs, or efforts at star-making that yielded nothing on the order of T&J, however much we enjoy George and Junior or Screwball Squirrel today. Status disparity between himself and H/B was said to rankle Tex, even as he passed them daily in Metro animation hallways.

Mentor and legend Moon Mullins, he of many past Greenbriar expeditions, used to get 2000’ reels snuck out of Charlotte exchanges made up of IB Tech Warner cartoons in 35mm with tunnel openings snipped off, the better to disguise ownership, he said. These were gorgeous, some Avery-made, this by way of saying that cartoon collecting was in those days catch and catch can, snatch and grab, pinch or pilfer, whatever got the goods quickest. To think nineteen Averys can today be had for $17.97 from Amazon … pure science-fiction in piratical days, which I’m frankly glad are past, whatever the thrill of ill-had gains. Not that fans prospered better in a past forty-five (at least) years, despite home video on quality up and up. Avery was till now absent from DVD, other than singles as extra with a feature here/there, or an odd Droopy collection where the pooch was emphasized over his creator. Laserdisc, once thought an acme of home-view splendor, hosted a complete Avery-MGM group spread over five record album-sized discs, but close inspect found some incomplete (cut for sensitive content), all analoggy and well below standard we insist upon today. There is point at which one is spoiled by perfection, and we've reached it.

Here’s what took bloom off Tex Avery rose since 70’s discovery: Copycats who would be Tex, a breed born in the 40’s when even Disney aped Avery to reach a same level for laughs. Watch Roger Rabbit, not just the feature, but any of short cartoons 80’s-made, or miles of Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, the bagatelle. I’d call Tex Avery hands-down the most influential animation director the business ever knew, as much a model today as eighty years ago. Remarkable thing about Avery was being ahead of his time in the 30/40’s, being still ahead thirty years after that. It took animation even longer to catch up with him, and that was only by way of slavishing every technique he introduced. Avery won’t seem as revolutionary today for his style having been so appropriated by others who’d call it theirs. I wish Tex Avery had lived longer (d. 1980) to fully know what a giant he’d been. By all account he was self-effacing, no credit hog or bragger, so fans had often to drag reminiscence from him, plus there was much sadness in his later life. A book was out in 1975, Tex Avery: King Of Cartoons, much of it oral history with the Master and some of co-workers. Frame captures were cloudy but accurate as to shape the films were in at the time. We are fortunate beyond measure to have Avery looking so rapturous via this Blu-Ray.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Here We Go Again ...

It's My Birthday Week and I'll Write About James Bond If I Want To

1964 Touchdown in Gotham for Goldfinger
What is it that is so especially sad about the passing of James Bond personnel, time passing for us all the short answer as two more joined the necrology since last year, Tania Mallet from Goldfinger (Tilly Masterson), then Claudine Auger, Domino of Thunderball in December ’19. I thought of these upon revisiting Goldfinger this week, of Shirley Eaton covered with gold paint, then recovered to join us forty-four years later (2008) at Winston-Salem’s Western Film Fair, sat behind a signing table in a drab conference room that was cosmos away from '64 London premieres (royalty present at one), and her LIFE magazine covered-in-gold cover. Next to Ms. Eaton was Caroline Munro, vet of a Roger Moore Bond, both not an hour from the house I live in. What varied planets these two have known, fame from long ago an annuity to buy them plane fare to farest-flung places where 007 fans dwell (which, of course, is everywhere).

Goldfinger today salts streaming mines with all of other Bonds, no more special than the rest, and far from the overpowering spectacle it once was. Maybe “spectacle” is inapt, because Goldfinger got made for a price (three million, it is said), then forged on to profit-bearing history. It’s been told and re-told that the Bond craze began here, a first two successful (Dr. No, Russia), but not remarkably so. I’ve written, perhaps too much, of impact(s) each made, yet Goldfinger startles still for so many pop cultural touchstones it introduced. For starts, the tying-in of toys, knick-knacks, stocking stuffing, that came of Goldfinger and run-up to Thunderball, presaged all of doo-dads to sell alongside Star Wars a decade later. Look, however, at what Goldfinger had to offer: a bathtub electrocution (this was where I learned not to plug anything in when/where immersed), the Gold Girl, sprawled and presumed naked on a bed she has lately warmed with Bond, a heart-stop in March ’65 when Goldfinger finally dragged ways to the Liberty following a December ’64 open elsewhere, Oddjob and his hat, amusing on the one hand, deadly on another, and yes, we threw hats as result of seeing him, though brims were too soft and fewer men wore lids at all thanks to Kennedy, it was said, shunning them. Then was the table to which 007 was strapped, and a laser beam aimed for his nether regions, a hazard even youngest viewers felt acutely. Sears offered the devise as toy for shoppers in 1965, for hadn’t Aurora given us a working Guillotine around the same time, with its detachable victim’s head that could be affixed, then cleaved, then back again?

I could go dizzy recalling all of stimuli … from which the Aston-Martin, with its ejector seat, stood well out. It was no time before Jethro Bodine tried a same gag on passengers as a “double-naught spy,” which reminds me too of many and tiresome spoofs that tried, but could not, dissipate powerful narcotic that was Bond, nor would ersatz agents we knew from posters, if not content of films, to be unworthy. Goldfinger was pygmied by ABC for September 1972 broadcast, a first Bond so shrunk and the network’s season premiere for Sunday Night Movies. I refused to watch as expression of grief that such a thing was allowed to happen, another theatrical totem toppled down to level of the living room box. Blu-Ray redeems all this, Goldfinger very much with theatre punch (albeit minus an audience) where home screens are large enough. There is much to enjoy anew from a favorite you’ve had for over half-a-century. Sentiment, memory, fresh aspects not noted before … whatever ails of modern life suspended for those 110 minutes, disc extras offering hours more. Here’s what one of those taught me: Albert R. Broccoli from the beginning proposed James Bond as family entertainment, which for me at age ten it seemed anything but. In fact, we went to Goldfinger upon assurance that it was the dirtiest picture ever to play the Liberty, and certainly the rawest to come our childish way. You had to assume all stops were out when they called the female lead “Pussy Galore.”

The teaser had Bond putting squelch to “heroin-flavored bananas,” this for obvious benefit of those arriving to 3:00 shows a little late from school-out but not missing essential narrative that follows. “Miami Beach” is a fascinating mosaic of that exotic place, plus indoor environ at Pinewood where most of “exteriors” were done, a happy economy I’d not trade for bloat that would accrue in a next, and future, Bonds. Shortcuts become old friends, “flaws” if you like, though I don’t see them so. It humanizes Bond to be humbled both at M’s office and even at table he shares with the boss and a high-up gov’t man (“Smithers is giving the lecture, 007”). Such quiet moments would become a lost thing as Bonds got Bigger, then Biggest. Time passes faster for me here than any of the series, Goldfinger a model of forward-movement, all muscle, no fat. The golf game reflects confidence in a situation played nearly mute (little dialogue, sans scoring), suspense taut upon whether Goldfinger, let alone Oddjob, would notice 007 having switched a golf ball. Where it is necessary to defend the concept of James Bond, this sequence will do.

Outdoors Miami Beach Staged Indoors at Pinewood

What films would you call wholly satisfactory? Narrowed down further, what Bonds are so? Many are fine in parts if not whole, but I’d call Goldfinger the one closest to a total win throughout. Noted, not for a first time, was fightin’ words Bond utters (certainly so in 1964), offhand, as in something to effect that no one should listen to the Beatles without earmuffs. So whose poison pill was that? Writer Richard Maibaum (b. 1909), co-scribe Paul Dehn (b. 1912)? I wonder if the line elicited boos anywhere. The Liverpool pack were at a peak of popularity, A Hard Day’s Night lately out, and clicking, though not on a level Goldfinger would. Here’s the thing I noticed from seeing Goldfinger first-run … virtually no one else at school had, and what’s more, they didn't much care. Classmates seemed not so taken with movies, at least not near extent I was, an admitted extreme not to be wished on anybody, but what did occupy them? I’ve looked back for answers, asked contemporaries ... there was the YMCA, kid sports, though less of that before at least seventh grade. What of the popular culture engaged them? Television surely … everyone had their favorite shows, but … I'd say it was music, records, AM radio, the more so as we moved up grades toward high school, enthusiasm a-plenty directed toward the Beatles. Were there polls in the 60’s asking teens which they preferred --- rock and roll, or movies? 

Brief as it was, had there been such a high-sped chase as Goldfinger’s with the Aston-Martin? There is one shot where the thing races round a corner and toward the camera that feels like a missile ready to jump off the screen. Pursuits before this were staid by compare, boxy sedans that seemed still even as drivers looked to be in seat-flight. Revenooers would never have run Lucas Doolin off a mountain road had he been driving an Aston-Martin (just checked --- they introduced the sleek DB4 in 1958, the year Thunder Road came out). Grace Kelly quick-drove a sporty vehicle to Cary Grant’s discomfort in To Catch A Thief, but we didn’t feel it for Hitchcock falling back on process screens. Even Bond did a sort of same in Dr. No, before car chases became ends in themselves. British wheel men Stanley Baker and crew rode trucks hard in Hell Drivers (1957), but that, at least for me, was more scary than thrilling, not meant to be “fun” chasing. So … I’m asking, what did we have for road action, in a modern sense, before Goldfinger and the Aston-Martin? I know I’m forgetting several, maybe some I’ve never seen or am not familiar with. And note: They kept making, and selling, 007’s Aston-Martin model for years after Goldfinger. Chances are, they still do.

Couple of random thoughts re Goldfinger: Dubbed voices, as in Gert Frobe, plus others throughout the Bond series whose faces we see, but with voices we don’t hear. You could almost call 007 a lot of dubbed foreign movies. And think of worldwide fame that came to so many journeyman Brit players when Bond went nuclear. Jobbers from way back, like to the 40’s … Honor Blackman, Bernard Lee, then Connery and Shirley Eaton almost anonymous in whatever work could be had during the 50’s. These folks must have stood often together to shake heads in astonishment. From Jacks to Kings, across the boards, so long as Bond would last, and of course, he’s still lasting. Here’s the other thing, and maybe I mentioned it somewhere before, but Brick Davis and I tallied percentage of UK films we saw at the Liberty during the mid-60’s, agreeing it was close to half. Consider the Bonds, Hammers, Beatle features, Tom Jones, Darling, Georgy Girl, offshoot chillers from Amicus and elsewhere, like Lipperts from over there, even Carry On entries that washed up on our shore. I was fully adjusted to British idiom and pace by age eleven. One last thing to close: Felix Leiter and assist are scoping Goldfinger’s stud farm where 007 is an apparent prisoner. At one point, they are parked in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. A keenest memory I have of that March ’65 day was sitting and wondering why our town did not yet have a KFC. It bothered me near as much as not having an extra dime for two Baby Ruths rather than one. For the record: Colonel Sanders finally built for us in 1967, the site now a Thai place.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Fox Does Comfort Westerns Wide

Edgy Ryan Lends Weight to The Proud Ones (1956)

Bloom had by now come off a rose that was Cinemascope, the process no longer a guarantor of grosses. The Proud Ones took profit in a year when many 20th Fox releases bled red, and did so perhaps for spending less ($1.4 million) and hewing to comfort western formula that was still a safest way to break even, whatever inroads television had made. It was typical at Fox to put contract youth, in this case Jeffrey Hunter, in support of outside names, Robert Ryan here, hope being that junior partners could move up eventually to leads. That had worked for 20th with Robert Wagner, but Hunter somehow lacked the luck, or was it skill?, to move up. He'd headline later, but elsewhere --- Universal with No Man Is An Island, Warners and Brainstorm. A really good performer like Robert Ryan could light up commonplace situations as in The Proud Ones, while at a same time prop up youngsters in audition for stardom. This had been routine since at least mid-30's merge of Fox with 20th Century, discards a Michael Whalen, here, Robert Lowery or Richard Greene there, though women tended to fare better, thanks perhaps to plethora of musicals at 20th. Jeffrey Hunter plays not an easy part on pretty much a single note, leaving it with Ryan to season the younger man's narrow interpretation of a hothead kid with a gun. Was it mid-fifties over-emphasis on bad juves that made cliche of delinquent types? Maybe this was Pat Boone's secret for equaling popularity of even Elvis at Fox, Pat a good lad and model for teens aspiring to be the same.

Ryan was the coiled spring of leading men. Romance did not become him for troubles that disqualified characters he'd play. Ryan in a fadeout clinch was seldom believable. Men he played were damaged starting out and generally got worse as they went. William Holden was often the establishment man with burdens a right woman, or flex of integrity, could overcome, but Ryan was too edgy to finish whole. Even if he survived an end title, you figure a next round would get him. The Set-Up was early career indicator of fates that awaited Robert Ryan. His was the loner with no welcome mat at doors. Something about his voice closed access by others. If Ryan's characters weren't angry, they were getting ready to be. He's the reason, maybe a sole one, to watch The Proud Ones.

For such tension he conveyed on screen, it's surprising how family-normal Ryan was in private life. I didn't know till recent that he co-founded a private school, Oakwood, still operating all these years later, in North Hollywood. First classes were conducted in Ryan's back yard while funds were raised to construct buildings, the actor guaranteeing necessary loans. Proud Ones co-star Virginia Mayo, a Warners borrow, spoke to television from 1956 vantage and said she'd not appear on the tube, a vow soon to topple as movie work tailed off and WB let her go. Within a year, there'd be a Conflict episode, then Wagon Train, The Loretta Young Show, Lux Playhouse, the rest. I'm hard pressed naming a star that didn't fall eventually to harvester that was TV, date and degree of capitulation being the only question.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Jett Rink Is In The Chips Now

The Guy Standing Behind Jim Is Probably Guessing How the Inveterate Cut-Up Will Subvert a Next Scene

Dean Cheers Up A Long Giant Sit

James Dean with Director George Stevens
James Dean as Jett Rink is for me the great termite performance within an elephant-size movie. He is impudent all through and makes for three plus hours wondering when his character will amble in and levitate heft that is Giant. Complainants say George Stevens was an over-studied director, but I say there’s place for over-studied films too. Breathtaking craft can be, well, breathtaking, and PTSD Stevens of the 50’s was that in spades, no one’s work so flawlessly prepared, then presented. Giant for me is the El Dorado of ultra-class, meaning-laden epics, because there is always a fun or fascinating scene coming within ten or less minutes. Everybody is good here, and if Dean/Jett isn’t best, he is at least the lightest. You’ll not convince me Dean was anything other than deliberate in sending up all, or at least his part, and I’ll guess that choice was made when Jim realized he’d not steer Giant like with Nicholas Ray on Rebel Without A Cause. Stevens later admitted that he should have let JD improvise more. Fact is, he does … all over the place … with Giant much the better for it. I could cite comic aspect of any scene Dean/Jett plays, but will limit to one for today that sums him up as gloom lifter and reliable source of Giant joy.

Luz has died and there is pall upon the Benedict house. Bick and retinue have discovered that she left reprobate Jett a “little piece of ground,” worth no more than five or six hundred dollars, which they would now offer him $1200 to forfeit, in the interest of “keeping Reata intact, within the family.” The scheme is hatched as Jett lingers on the outside porch, seen through the window by “Judge Oliver Whiteside” (Charles Watts), background Dean playing his rope into bows, knots, whatever to steal moments as others exposite. Deaf to dialogue inside, he looks like an Ed Sullivan performer seen from a next room. Bick calls him inside and there is tension between the two that is a most compelling conflict in whole of Giant, not just because Bick disdains Jett, but for what we now know of low estimate Hudson and Dean had for one another. I don’t recall Bick/Jett together on an even Giant plane unless one or both are seated, except the third act fight, which is less an exchange than Jett taking a drunken fall after he tries sucker-punching Bick. Was it disparity of height, the two kept apart to protect Dean’s five foot seven from Hudson’s six foot five? Hudson took orders, was happy taking them, especially from a director he admired so much as Stevens. “I followed him around like a puppy dog,” he unabashedly said in later interviews. We may assume that Hudson’s performance (a fine one) was result of Stevens’ guidance, while Dean operated upon ideas mostly his own. He enjoyed advantage of being the iconoclast other, a rebel, loner, eternal frustrate, to whom a nation’s immaturity would gravitate, while Hudson as Bick had to pull narrative plow and be unwilling to change with Texas times. It was no more a fair contest then than it is now, but know that Dean's humor would not work nearly so well were it not for Hudson as straight, if unknowingly so, partner. Bick/Jett could have stood in for a breaking-up-that-year Dean/Jerry.

Posed Still of Reata Tricksters at Work on Jett
Jett is welcomed into the office sanctum, doubtless for a first time. He and Bick’s coterie goof off with each other, Monte Hale telling Jett that “you sure look good today.” Dean plays the wise fool, laughs along, winks to off-camera observers. He does his tics to amuse them and us. Gestures and expression annoying to some in East Of Eden are put to the service of sly comedy, Dean settling into a Jett who will be a jester but also a threat. He had learned a lot from Eden/Rebel, including how to leave his whine behind. The good old boys close in. Remarks are punctuated with “Amen” and “Hallelujah,” especially where the late Luz is referenced. They figure to rook Jett out of his inheritance, and he seems amenable to it. Once inside the office, we are down to three shots for the negotiation, Jett seated, then getting up to exit, pausing at the door ... a total of just under five minutes. This would not be occasion for Stevens to do endless takes so he could get coverage enough to cut twelve ways. Everything here rides on performance rather than GS-signature dissolves or quick cuts to hammer a point. Had the director not trusted Dean, he surely would have broken it up to give himself fuller flexibility in post-production (a process he’d spend a year on for Giant).

And Away He Twirls ... Suppose Stevens Ever Wanted To Snatch That Thing Away From Jim?

Jim and His Magic Rope Spend a Motel Night Together
Jett stays slouched in his chair, tinkers with his coiled rope, not in a scene-hogging way, but to avoid too much interaction with people he distrusts. His face betrays doubt at snake oil they’re pouring, even as he joshes along when someone asks “what are you aimin’ to do with all that money?” Bick unlocks a cash box and takes out $1200 as Judge Whiteside tenders the offer, certain that Jett will leap for it. The way Hudson as Bick drops the bills on the desk in front of Jett is pointed insult, his contempt seeing no way such a low-born could turn down a windfall. It is a patronizing gesture, and Hudson keys it just right. Everyone agrees, “You’re in the chips now, boy,” to which Jett, having been silent so far, mimes “I sure am.” He then pulls the switch, which is to reject Bick’s offer and the money. “I’m sentimental too, Bick.” The group goes silent as Jett rises from the chair he has sat low and slouched in. Now Stevens shoots from lower as Jett futzes with the rope, then his hat, which he puts on even though he remains inside the house. The rope gag is repeated as shot three has Jett turning around at the door he’ll open to other guests at Reata receiving for Luz.

No Young Male Star So Calculated His Posing as James Dean

WB-Issued Color Still for the Above Sequence
A Texas cowboy was got to teach Dean rope tricks, a process to which Jim took like duck to ponds. He knew that to master this was to heist any scene he pleased, and to that goal, he leapt. Dean was all in for icon-makeover for himself. No more pasty face in a crowd of live television. He was as deliberate at still posing as Stevens was at directing. They should have bonded on such kinship, two strong egos of a kind. Dean did dissidence to a brown turn. Wonder how that would have fared had he lived and Warners began putting him in bad or miscast pictures the inevitable lot of rebel/Method brethren. The last shot as Jett prepares to exit is a reach to fan love as only Jim could make: Pausing at the door, he smiles to the would-be bamboozlers, offers a low and downward wave we could all do to imitate where asserting our one-of-a-kindness. I have a friend who saw Giant at the crowded Fox Theatre in 80's Atlanta. He said that when Dean did that underhand salute, the audience lit up, cheers and laughter rolling over hundreds like force from a wind that had blown thirty years before, and for all I know, still would if we shared Giant with crowds today.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Dressler Again Gives All

Money As Route To Misery in Emma (1931)

Another money-breeds-rotten-offspring story, these endemic to a widening Depression. Emma was a vehicle for newly-huge star Marie Dressler, whose line in laughs plus sentiment was beyond any rival's reach, save possibly Will Rogers, who shared with her a top boxoffice spot nationwide. What grief prevailed at Metro when Dressler died, sincere among staffers and not limited just to bookkeepers. Emma was small of cost and large of revenue, as in $350K to make and $1.9 million in worldwide rentals to count. This was all fruit of Dressler having starred. Frances Marion had been her writer muse, each of the star's defining roles created or developed by this scribe who was responsible as anyone for Metro success with early talk. Dressler as Emma is a selfless housekeeper who gives all for ingrate children she raised, a concept easy to buy as everyone knew privilege was gateway to no-goodness. Ma Joad's curtain speech in The Grapes Of Wrath ("Rich fellas come up an' they die, an' their kids ain't no good, an' they die out") was stating the obvious for moviegoers who'd seen the cliché play on a loop for at least ten pre-Grapes years.

Dressler could finesse burlesque with subtler shades, often within a single shot. As Min and Bill was the one to truly establish her, bumps from it would be applied to quick-serve follow-ups. Not since Mabel Normand had there been an actress to so meld slapstick with heart. Emma was first occasion for Dressler to carry bags more/less alone, no Beery, Garbo, whoever, to claim equal, or more, viewer focus. Internal concern was health trouble Dressler kept to herself as boxoffice rank rose; what work she'd perform had to be limited, with rest periods frequent. Like with Lon Chaney, MGM tried squeezing whatever juice they could from all too perishable fruit. More Stars Than There Are In Heaven threatened to become More Stars Were In Heaven Than Working At Metro, what with Chaney (1930), Dressler (1934), later Harlow (1937), headed in that direction, plus William Haines, Ramon Novarro, Buster Keaton, John Gilbert, dropping off top ranks as suddenly as some got on. Emma had mixed reviews, mechanics more obvious each time the formula was repeated. We could speculate as to how much longer Marie Dressler would have lasted had she lived, though there isn't doubt of her being at a summit when the end came.

Marie Dressler rules at Greenbriar: How To Lose Your Job As A Motion Picture Exhibitor, Early Talkers On The Ropes, Unexpected Pleasures: Dressler and Moran, The Patsy (1928), Min and Bill.

Be sure and listen to Farran Nehme's fine podcast survey of Marie Dressler's life and career HERE at Karina Longworth's You Must Remember This site.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Going Against Godfrey Grain

He Should Have Chosen Cordelia

I’ll be heretical and say flat out that William Powell as Godfrey would have been better off with Cordelia Bullock, as played by Gail Patrick. I would not have wished Carole Lombard’s Irene even on gorilla man Carlo (Mischa Auer), though they are a better match for my money. Having so blasphemed a settled classic of screwball comedy, it remains to ask myself why the resistance to a story and its resolution that generations have embraced and continue to. Comedy for me, apart from Snub Pollard, Keystone Kops, or the ilk, is drama with humor elements. We are dealing with people and their problems which I will take on face value and regard seriously. It may not be fair to screwball ethos, but I expect characters, at least ones I am expected to identify with on any level, to act sensibly, and to me, it is not sensible for Powell as Godfrey to enter willingly into marriage with such a birdbrain as Lombard’s Irene. Willingly is an operative word, for it always seemed he was forced by circumstance, and her insistence, to speak vows against his better judgment. Godfrey is an intelligent and educated man, he and Cordelia islands of acuity amidst chaos those surrounding them represent. Easy to forecast is Irene ending up like her mother, nattering and foolish, Godfrey’s marital outcome a mirror to Alexander Bullock’s (Eugene Pallette). In the Godfrey world I predict, he would drift toward infidelity with sister Cordelia, with whom it’s clear by a third act he has sympathy with and much more in common. As for Irene, opposites may attract, utter opposites less so. Godfrey and Irene as a sustaining couple after fade-out is not to be believed, and I reserve the right to believe or not in movie outcomes, even “screwball” ones.

The Cast Getting Direction from Gregory La Cava

Godfrey and the Woman I Would Rather He End Up With
I tend to invest fully in comedy situations, even, some say, to a point of over-analysis. We watched a Friends episode a few weeks ago where Joey fails an acting audition and I said it wasn’t right for him to be so humiliated, that it wasn’t funny, and that humor was undone where a character likeable as Joey is made such a fool of. Comedy is a most fragile of arts. If you don’t want me to take Godfrey’s situation seriously, then put him on a unicycle with a handlebar mustache and let trains chase him. Otherwise, I will judge his choices, or mistakes in choosing. The end of My Man Godfrey sees a good and sympathetic man (and never mind it’s one of my favorite actors) trapped in a ceremony he will regret, regrets even as it proceeds. Here’s the thing with Cordelia: She is scheming and guileful, “high-spirited” as Godfrey tactfully puts it. He realizes they were raised in similar circumstance (“There have been other spoiled children in the world. I happen to be one of them myself”). If Cordelia grew up entitled, so did Godfrey. For his greater age and experience, Godfrey knows that maturity is within Cordelia’s grasp. He acknowledges that she taught him humility and "the fallacy of false pride." Besides that, Cordelia is attracted to Godfrey, and he to her (my reading admittedly, but scenes tend to bear it out). I’d like to think that Cordelia, defused by Godfrey having saved the Bullock fortune, would acquire a “more constructive” attitude, the two headed for a happy ever-after. 

Lombard as performer was not at fault, as I’m told she was directed (by Gregory La Cava) to go full out madcap. Her Irene rides a horse into the Bullock mansion and parks it in the library, thankfully off-camera. Madcap that stops being funny becomes exhausting. Powell saves Godfrey. We could wonder how things would turn out if Melvyn Douglas or Robert Montgomery played his part. For how many films was casting the charm, or tip-over? More urgent: What OK films might have been classics had they been cast better? Back to Lombard on the horse: If a gag were more alarming than amusing where actually shown, is it less so when someone refers to it as a past event? Anecdotal account of Irene indoors and astride amuses me no more than its visual reality would. How will Bullard staff adequately clean rugs and tile once the animal is removed (after being there all night … Gads!). Pardon if I seem arbitrary. If My Man Godfrey weren’t such a fine picture, I’d not go so deep in the well with it. What confers greatness is often the contradictions within movies we love. Sometimes it’s hard to express even why we gravitate to them. I admit being that way about My Man Godfrey and at least a hundred others.

Does My Man Godfrey expose the “evil of capitalism”? At least one modern commentator says yes. The rich, we are told, are rightly ridiculed in screwball. It is said this calmed the proletariat. Was it also to quell threat of social revolution in the 30’s? I doubt the rich cared, since being rich will cushion a lot of hurt from being teased. Alexander Bullock knows his wealth is tenuous, that a family he wishes he’d never started is frittering assets away. It would have been hard, even in 1936, to resent or dislike Alexander Bullock. They say audiences were reassured by movie millionaires being invariably worse off than themselves, a given that money did not confer happiness, taught time and again by Hollywood. Godfrey is sympathetic because he fled the yoke of riches. Fact is, had he not come of aristocracy equal to the Bullocks, any inter-marriage would have been ill-advised. What 30’s heiress saw anything but grief for running off with her chauffeur? Godfrey reminds me of noble savage Tarzan turning out to be Viscount Greystoke so that proper English Jane could couple with him without stepping out of her class. Godfrey brings added benefit of being a Wall Street wizard capable of turning Bullock ruin into riches, his having gone to Harvard a story element planted early so we’d know he was worthy of elevated status. Godfrey having lived in a dump is little more than opportunity to see how a lower half lives, since a quick telegram to home in Boston or withdrawal from a trust account could put him back in chips at any point of the narrative. Godfrey calling scavenger hunters, including the Bullocks, a “bunch of empty-headed nitwits” may have been a sop to class-resenters in 1936, and now, but really, these are his people and it’s more than a little disingenuous for him to mock them so. Maybe Godfrey deserves to end up with Irene after all.
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