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Sunday, March 08, 2020

Keep Those Stars In The Dark

The White Angel Was The Flop That Wasn't --- Part One

Always keep them off-balance … film stars of the Studio Era, that is. I don’t know a group more lied to and misled. Few (none?) were tipped off to how well work was doing, especially where it was doing extremely well. And to any that sought to check books? Lights out. The Manhattan Project was not so kept a secret. Come option time, most (all?) were glumly told that work was OK, hardly through the roof, and times being tough and all that, here was no occasion to raise stipend ... just be thankful we’re picking up your option at all. How many fell for this chicken scratch? I bet a virtual insecure all, for how many actors truly knew their worth and stood behind conviction that a public wanted them? As Paul Muni recalled of his Warners output in a late 50’s interview, “I had made one picture after another … I don’t know how much money they made.” Some challenged stacked decks, grew claws for knowing popularity even as hirers tried hardest to conceal it. Cagney and Bette Davis at Warners sensed worth and would not stand for bamboozle. But what of meeker others? Joan Blondell was said to take her (not enough) money and be glad for it. Wiser heads canvassed trades, Variety charts, whatever would reveal truth of their boxoffice standing. You swam with sharks in this business and as persuasive as those man-eaters was a Depression still going on. To be a supplicant was to be further mistreated, or at the least underappreciated, that last always in terms of money you got (or didn't). Kay Francis was no chump, but Warners likely thought her one, for they played Kay a slimy trick by brand of The White Angel as a flop, which it damn well was not.

Here's skinny: The White Angel outperformed The Story Of Louis Pasteur, $1.4 million in worldwide rentals versus Muni’s $1.1. Angel cost a heap more to make ($506K for the negative against Pasteur’s very economical $395K). WB increased spend because Pasteur success boded well for more medico-based bios. The White Angel prevailed in profit: $456K against Pasteur’s $395K. Yet we’re told, to this day, that The White Angel tanked. Even Hal Wallis, into the 80’s and his 80’s, recalled a fallen Angel result of washed-up Kay Francis. I maintain this was a lie when first spread in 1936-37, but sad to add, was likely believed by Kay when they used it to undermine her confidence and put skids under a contract player they wanted to be rid of. When even co-propagator Wallis came to believe the deceit himself, you know it’s ingrained elsewhere. Does this matter eighty-some years later? I think it does, for at the least showing how talent got shafts varied only by length or breadth, square dealing rare as feathers on a frog. No wonder Kay Francis got out, then couldn’t wait to be forgotten, per title of a fine bio penned by Scott O’Brien (there are actually two Francis tomes of recent vintage, both high-recommended).

Offscreen Kay Is The Outdoor Type

Now to what I believe went wrong for Kay: She was slipping, had been since strict Code enforcement took ginger out of her vehicles. Kay had become corn on a cob without butter or salt. She was for sex drama like Mae West was for sex comedy. Both suffered for the loss of brand. Francis in Living On Velvet and The Goose and The Gander barely saw profit, yet I Found Stella Parrish and Give Me Your Heart did well, enough so for Warners to give her a new contract. Kay could be ornery, but not like Bette Davis, as in rejecting scripts or decamping for England. The White Angel was an eminently sensible depart from a Francis formula that had gotten tired. Was she actress enough to enact a real-life personage and put aside fashion that till then had been her bailiwick? For all anyone knew, here might be a distaff Muni aborning. Why not Francis for a series of Great Woman roles? Image shifts were not out of the question, and had been done before. Kay embraced the challenge and acquitted well, her Florence Nightingale a subdued but persuasive interpretation. She would look back on the project disparagingly, largely I suspect because everyone told her what a flop it was and maybe that was her failing, WB gaslight switched full on. Something rotten was in the state of Burbank, the bobsled under Kay Francis for reasons we’ll never fully know, nor would she, I suspect.

Begloved Director William Dieterle Setting Up a Next Scene

It could have gone the other way. Francis was first chair among WB actresses, and should have stayed that way but for creeping conviction that she was a spent asset. The White Angel had makings of Kay as repository of class dramatic parts, and indeed she wanted The Sisters, and then Dark Victory, both of which Bette Davis got. A question at Warners, indeed any major lot, was whether talent could sustain through projects lavishly mounted. Too many of Francis films of late were cut-rate, off-rack, and why must they all co-star her with George Brent? Similar tar babies laid in wait for Bette Davis, but she had nerve to fight, or did Francis just not care as much? She had saved her money, seemingly every dime of it, said observers, so could quit if need be, but she was work-oriented for the sake of work if not dedication to art, and didn’t seem so much to mind bad pictures so long as checks cleared. There’s a story I like where Bette Davis attended a play Francis did in the early-50’s, long after latter was finito with movies. They had drinks and BD asked why Kay didn’t go to the mat with Warner for better work, to which Francis frankly replied, “I didn’t give a damn. I just wanted the money.” Would that others have had similar attitude … might have saved them some mental health.

The White Angel took Pasteur's route in showing how ignorance and indifference fed disease in the century then-past, keeping action overseas so as not to implicate US medical communities, past or present. Our progress by comparison was leaps and bounds past what pioneers of medicine elsewhere had accomplished, or so the pic proposes. After all, hadn't Kay Francis already been a heroine medico in two for Warners? A casting issue might have been 30's viewership that didn't want Kay Francis on realist terms, she being bastion for Hollywood artifice as matinee-goers preferred it. The White Angel tentative-explores wretched conditions a fallen army coped with, this in far-away Crimea a 1936 crowd cared less about beyond backdrop for Errol Flynn's derring-do in same-year Charge Of The Light Brigade. Movie soldiers were better enjoyed fighting in the field than writhing on hospital cots, and word of that may have kept some of Kay's following at bay, a hazard met by reliability of her offscreen fashion sense. “Best Dressed” was an honor not lightly bestowed. Reviews lauding Kay Francis as The White Angel were as much recognition of her willingness to gamble on depart from norm as nod toward good performing.

Part Two on The White Angel is HERE.


Blogger DBenson said...

Thinking of Chaplin's "The Circus", where the little tramp is the star of the show but doesn't know it. Chaplin had been his own boss for most of his film career -- Was he looking back at Keystone or Karno days, or did he see such treatment of studio-contracted contemporaries? Back in the earliest days there was a conscious effort to make screen players anonymous and, ideally, interchangeable. That fell apart as stars became marketable.

It must have been a tricky deal, persuading stars (and key offscreen talent?) they were worthless while trumpeting their fame and box office success to the trade and the public. Like an old Dilbert strip of the boss segueing directly from crowing about record profits to an announcement of essential belt-tightening.

At some point the game became creative accounting, where studios gleefully proclaim record box office receipts while telling stakeholders the costs and "overhead" ate all the profits. Read somewhere that Abbott and Costello's manager, looking for grounds to force Universal to open its books, noticed how camera stores did a lively trade in A&C 8mm reels that weren't showing up as profits to be shared.

These days (and perhaps always, to an extent), stars and others in the biz believe their fame and value is far beyond what it is in real life. For some decades now this has led to embarrassing pontifications by people who just assume the world wants to know their minds.

10:45 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

A fellow said, "Boy, am I glad I listened to you."

"What did I tell you?"

"You said, 'Never sign on contract.' My band was approached. Everyone signed the contract but me. I showed it to my father's lawyer. He said, 'If you sign this you won't make a dime. They built the mortgage on the studio they shot Rin Tin Tin pictures into this.'"

Great post. I tell the above tale the show nothing has changed.

Artists get fed from the last teat on the bull. As bulls do not give milk that means artists drink from a particularly dry well.

I have never understood why the producers always seem to want to kneecap the talent.

6:31 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I suspect the all-time champs for being lied to and undervalued were The Three Stooges, who were hired by Columbia in 1934 and never got a pay raise for 23 years. Only after the Stooges had left Columbia for personal appearances did theater managers take Moe Howard aside and wise him up about how valuable the Stooge shorts had always been.

On the other side of the coin, one of the all-time champs for knowing full well how much he was worth was Leo Gorcey, who extorted $10,000 a week and a 40 percent piece of each picture from Monogram. (Bobby Jordan, who had once been billed above Gorcey at Monogram, got only $1000 a week.) In the '50s Monogram's successor, Allied Artists, figured out how to make a Bowery Boys picture in half the usual time, which may have cut into Gorcey's payday!

8:29 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

A Stooges short in front of a Columbia feature was a guarantee the theater would be packed. The figures were credited to the feature not to the short. Harry Cohn knew this which is why he kept making Stooges' short films. As soon as Cohn died The Stooges got the boot. That turned out to be a good thing as their shorts became the hottest thing on TV. They made more money in their last years than in all the years before that as one.

4:18 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I like Kay Francis quite a bit, but I have a feeling "Dark Victory" wouldn't have become the classic that it is with her in the lead. She kind of reminds me of Warren William -- terrific in pre-code movies, not as interesting post-1935. Perhaps the material just isn't as good as they are.

By the way, it's clear that nobody double-checked that newspaper ad where the theater owner misspelled "endorse."

6:51 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

The Stooges certainly made money after Columbia dumped them, but I’d guess it was a lot less than what Columbia made on television sales. Walt Disney’s toons were distributed by Columbia for a while, and the then-hot shorts were likewise used as loss leaders— A raw deal for the independent producer, who managed to take Mickey elsewhere.

Odd that the Stooges continued to release their own features through Columbia, even after they had to sue over “Stop, Look, and Laugh”.
Was there a more agreeable new regime?

5:17 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Harry Cohn had told the Stooges they would have a job as long as he was in charge, but Jules White pulled the plug on them, not Cohn. White decided to retire, and he shut down the shorts department on Friday, December 20, 1957.

I wonder if the Stooges shopped around for a feature deal before settling on Columbia. Maybe not. Columbia may have made more sense to them: the Stooges already knew the commute, they already knew the crews, and they already knew that Columbia had good distribution, as opposed to some indie that had to get the films into theaters somehow.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

@Kevin K.: "Indorse" is a less common spelling than "endorse," but it's still recognized by dictionaries.

12:39 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I was not aware Jules WShite pulled the plug on the shorts. Thanks. It was Norman Maurer, Moe's son-in-law, who handled the business end on their features.

6:29 AM  

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