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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Improving On Ziegfeld's Past


Glitter or a Gutter Waits For a Next Ziegfeld Girl



Did MGM think they could recreate Ziegfeld Follies better than he was able to create them? I’m suspecting so based on Ziegfeld Girl, what with its He was good, but come and see us top him. Implicit to every music revue was boast that what Broadway sold you for six dollars a seat could be had from movies for seventy-five cents. Bargain shopping for entertainment was everyone’s pastime, ultimate win to ones who nested home with their radios. Ziegfeld Girl promised a moon not tendered since a first Ziegfeld story from 1936, well recalled if not revived by 1941. No need for that where Metro could improve upon it. Ziggy was long gone, him since just a name, now an offscreen divinity (we never see “Ziegfeld” himself in Ziegfeld Girl). Wasn’t it settled that films were doing a better job at what Ziegfeld and others of Broadway did? Simple enough to kid heart-landers who never experienced a Great White Way. Others saw stage recital recorded by cameras as static tableau it was. That much had not changed since early talkies. Ziegfeld Girl is set in the 20’s, yet nothing about it suggests the 20’s, except references to Prohibition. Weakest sections are where they try to dazzle us with “production.” A thing can be colossal as you please on a screen and still look punk beside seeing a same done live. Think Rodan at safe distance of celluloid could scare you like him (or was it her?) flying over your house this morning? I watched Tony Martin serenading a hundred showgirls in Ziegfeld Girl and wanted him to quit and go home. Even Judy Garland looks arch trying to headline one after other elephantine numbers, these far from what she did best in films.




I submit Lana Turner as a best thing about Ziegfeld Girl. Anyone who calls Lana a “bad actress” misses the point. She was, in fact, a master at her very particular craft. But let’s be stingy and say it was mere “instinct,” like a thirsty dog locating a water dish, except no, for why is Turner so good as others frankly fall down? And yet if any had asked her to explain how/why, I’m not sure she could have. Maybe that is because people like Lana Turner were born understanding the fundamentals of melodrama and how best to play it. She knew a right level to rise to, and not go beyond. As cast-mates lay too heavy a hand at times, she floats above the morass and never forgets her art is all off tissue rolls. Lana finds humor in her character’s suffering, sort of a “Here’s the part where I collapse walking down the stairs after being dissolute through a third act.” Turner knew when enough was enough, wise not to push for effect beyond that. Movies were ripe fruit for only awhile after all, Ziegfeld Girl a most disposable of them. Why make an ass of yourself trying too hard? I enjoyed her best among a crowd busting humps to be dramatic. Turner makes phony-baloney a good thing. I felt her embarrassment where Minnelli whip drove (with Lana driving) a shriek culminate to Kirk Douglas' blow-off in The Bad and The Beautiful, where James Stewart, and then Ian Hunter, doing approximate same in Ziegfeld Girl are fly specks to a girl who knew she was Lana Turner and that fresh men would be along sooner than a next street car.






Norma Shearer Extends Helping Hand To Mae Busch
Ziegfeld Girl is actually a threesome, “All-Star” by way of Judy Garland (first-billed of the trio), Hedy Lamarr, her name above Turner’s for no good reason, other than Ziegfeld Girl being Lana-try-out for undisputed leads, and boy, does she pass. Garland is seen and heard to frank disadvantage, always more effective where song arose from situation, Judy advancing drama via longing lyrics, as in Will Andy Hardy ever love me?, or Why won’t the Boy Next Door look my way? Utter sincerity and sometime catch in words, “Oh no, John, I don’t hate you, I just hate basketball.” That reads silly, but she made it Shakespeare. Hammering a number on a crowded stage is not my notion of Garland used best. The can-do-anything as applied to this girl went but so far. Judy was as delicate a mechanism as any great star. Of Hedy Lamarr, I will say less. A good thing she was inventing modern technology at home, so there would be something for us to applaud. Lamarr said MGM just wanted her to “look dumb, and act stupid.” In Ziegfeld Girl at least, she delivers. Not to be harsh though, because Lamarr’s is a bad-conceived part, the sort imposed on her, and us, in belief she would at least be something to look at, but hold: the real Ziegfeld had Louise Brooks, that enough to beat Leo’s time no matter a depth of competition. Some would say the most arresting Ziegfeld girl(s) are ones backstage, Eve Arden and Mae Busch most prominent. Yes, Mae Busch, as in deserved italics. I read of Mae being charity casting at MGM by the late 30’s, Norma Shearer notably kind to the cast-off. Back caption on the still at above left reads in part: "Mae Busch, who starred in motion pictures long before the talkies arrived, is making a screen comeback with the aid of Norma Shearer, who helped her obtain the role of Madame LaMotte in "Marie Antoinette," in which Miss Shearer plays the leading role." Ziegfeld Girl, however, gives Mae a real part, the last of substance as fate had it, with tart lines even, if not enough of them. Who could have known then that Mae Busch would be such a meaningful name today? (at least among Laurel-Hardy followers)


MGM Either Cut This Portion of Ziegfeld Girl, Or I Slept Through It


Irksome to me is all of men in Ziegfeld Girl being such horse arses. Why should Hedy give up potential stardom to salve sensitivity of loser ball-chain Philip Dorn? Their arguments, one accent pitted against another, gets tedious fast. Then there is Charles Winninger, too vocal in best of times, as Clueless Dad dragging Judy down, a tempo impediment where most long for him to exit Ziegfeld Girl and stay gone. James Stewart is Lana’s whiny boyfriend who wants her to marry him instead of becoming a Ziegfeld star. Easy choice!, which Turner makes until down-and-outness makes simper-Jim preferable to dipso death rattles. Occurs to me that Stewart wasn't inducted a moment too soon. He may have needed the war a lot more than the war needed him, notwithstanding combat record he scored up. At least from that he came back a more persuasive player, likeable by increased leaps anyway. Pre-fight JS may indeed be best summed up by Tex Avery in the Hollywood Steps Out cartoon cameo. Ziegfeld Girl argues, if unknowingly, for woman’s deliverance from dominance of men, as none of its trio are enhanced by anchors here, yet we’re supposed to root for these guys and hope they prevail at the end. Such was pro forma life Hollywood would impose upon heroines, and us, should we buy into it, and yet who in that industry practiced what was preached? (see Garland, Lamarr, Turner discard of husbands, and more power to them, for bulk of bread brought home was theirs, and that was/is always what tips scales). Ziegfeld Girl is had on a very nice DVD from Warners.




Sunday, April 26, 2020

Hot Rods and Rock From AIP

Two Shows, Plus AIP Stars In Person, and Signing Autographs!

Dragstrip Girl and Rock All Night Are Sure a Keen Pair


Ever do a chickie run? Neither have I. We think of them in connection with James Dean and likewise doomed teens. I never hear of current rebels trying them, with or without cause. Seems runs of the chickie-era varied in format beyond the one Natalie Wood presided over. Dragstrip Girl proposes several risks-of-all to demonstrate nerve behind wheels. Amazon gets within car length of Dragstrip Girl and co-feature Rock All Night, the pair having played in 1957 under AIP banner now streaming in quality better than long-deprived fans dare expect (Shout! Factory the provider). I watched in hope of align with ’57 sensibilities, this with fresh listen to “Rockabilly” compilations to make transport complete. Ridicule them (and me too) if you please, but do watch first and maybe get surprised by what pro jobs they are despite penurious AIP outlay. I enjoyed both and go proud saying so. There is a spirit many B’s have, energy too often sapped from high-end product. Roger Corman I need not emphasize because so many others have, and continue to. I’ll just agree that, yes, his early films are underestimated, in part because they’ve become harder to see. Ownership of Corman is split at least three different ways (no, four … five? --- skip it, make that more than is calculable). Just say for purpose of this mini-appreciation that his Rock All Night is more than just-good-for-what-it-is … for me, Rock All Night was a revelation.




William Saroyan once wrote a play called The Time Of Your Life (eventful day in a Bowery bar), was Pulitzer awarded, then saw his lump of pretension become James Cagney’s dullest picture. That was 1948. Nine years later, Charles B. Griffith (talk about underestimated) writes a close approximation in twenty-four hours for Corman to direct. Rock All Night is an eventful night in a rattier bar, and flies it attracts (this where AIP poverty strickiness helps). Thwarted ambitions, disillusioned love, worms turning, derive in fact from a TV yarn plugged into Jane Wyman’s anthology show, bought for undoubted pennies by Corman after he caught it with evening Spam, or whatever he ingested to maintain eighteen-hour work days. I’d like to see the Wyman episode to confirm guess that Griffith took little from it. He claimed to have cut up, then pasted, slivers of the bought script among added-by-him stuff. Griffith's was unique style many say was too good for Roger and AIP (Griffith himself was strong in that opinion), and perhaps kinder fate might have found him working instead for mighty Metro, but would this have stood Griffith better in posterity’s long run? He was around until 2007, evidently accessible as could be. But I didn’t realize then how good he was, not having seen his AIP’s since Paleozoic syndication.  So much is marvelous about Rock All Night, the least of it, surprisingly, the music, of which there really isn’t a lot. The Platters are here, two lip-sync songs at the open, then whoosh, they’re gone (not the plan, their having ankled a star spot at a last minute for greater glory of concerting). Also aboard are “The Blockbusters,” who recorded for “Antler Records,” but don’t seem to have registered much elsewhere (pause here for rock musicologists to tell how famous they actually were, and how dumb I am not to know it).




Real value of Rock All Night for me is a cast and situations that raised not one seat fidget or retire to the kitchen. Dick Miller is the lead, I said the lead. There is a splendid documentary about Dick streaming on Amazon. He just left us this past year. I don’t know why Dick was not in 24/7 demand, because he is terrific here, and gets to save the day for the ensemble at Rock’s wrap. Another familiar and welcome face: Robin Morse as “Al,” the bartender. Morse was the splendid actor who played Marty’s friend, the one who exalts “That Mickey Spillane … he sure can write.” I see where Morse died in 1958, after not getting to do enough (a “pit slave” in The Ten Commandments among bits, uncredited parts, or roles cut out). Acting really was, remains, a hard luck life for most. Does a bell go off for Morse in the beyond when ones of us say things nice about him? I hope so. Rock All Night is rife with hopefuls and never-were’s. Most deserved better, but never got it. Russell Johnson robs an offscreen supermarket before showing up to terrorize Rock space for a mesmerizing third act. Gilligan's Island would be Johnson’s lucky star, but he was plenty good here, aided by sharp Griffithian dialogue. Mel Welles is also along as “Sir Bop,” a hipster and then some, dispenser of slang like Pig Latin put through a sieve. IMDB says Mel was a clinical psychologist at one time. How many of us can claim that? He’s more joy of Rock All Night. I once found a half-sheet for The Undead (lovely) signed by Welles (not Orson … Mel). He is a monument at AIP, but wait, so are others (Jonathan Haze, Bruno VeSota, both in Rock All Night). Many lived to be interviewed to death, each astonished by fans too young to have seen the movies first run, but caring yet. Why seek such stuff so long past relevancy? To members of the AIP Alumni Association, past work seemed a very definition of ephemeral.




1961 Dusk-Dawn Re-Coupling of AIP's
The girl who was Dragstrip Girl was Fay Spain, a name ideal to the 50’s. Something I didn’t realize about Fay was that she played “Hyman Roth’s” wife in The Godfather: Part II. That means she acted opposite Lee Strasberg! Suppose he gave Fay tips, or got tips from her? John Ashley makes his film debut here, a natural presence who never took an acting lesson, and it shows, altogether to the good. Dragstrip Girl was directed by Edward L. Cahn, around from early talk day and could finish a feature before you'd bring in groceries. He did much for AIP, fun sci-fi for others, had MGM Our Gangs on his c.v. Cahn knew recipe for constant work: start always on time, finish ahead of that, and don’t spend a nickel untoward. Dragstrip Girl has speed (natch) and verve. Part of it was captured at a real-life race, so check off documentary value plus dollars saved. These kids run hot-rods more serious than Andy Hardy or Jimmy Lydon. When did teens lose interest in souping up old cars? I never noticed them at it when I was in school. Of course, if they were, I was probably home watching Mogambo. Risking necks seem to be daily duty for Dragstrip’s young scruffs. No wonder grown-ups despaired so of youth. Were movies like Dragstrip Girl a bad influence? (as Jerry Wald accused) Did they go home, build a lethal go-devil, then go out and kill busloads of nuns? Rock All Night and Dragstrip Girl are as high a time as I’ve had with a double feature this year, not a last of AIP pairs I’ll watch and report on, now that Amazon is ladling them so lushly (at least fifteen so far excavated, and put in queue). 2020 is looking up.




Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Great War's Bitter Aftertaste


The Eagle and The Hawk (1932) Takes Glory Out Of Dog-Fighting


Grim account of Great War flyers numbed by deaths they score up over France. Aerial antics had been stuff of thrills and romance since Wings made the mold, but this was letting us know that combat wasn't all scarves and air-set glory. The Eagle and The Hawk has Fredric March in progressive slip from sanity due to "mere kids" he shoots down, his eyes darkening clouds thanks to makeup reminiscent of Mr. Hyde lately essayed for home-lot Paramount. March gave versatility with capital V and so got parts all over thematic maps, him equal to task whatever the characterization (dual roles no stranger as he did several, plus playing Death itself on notable occasion). Opposite number in The Eagle and The Hawk is Cary Grant, still green and developing the Grant we'd know and prefer, but he's fun in head-to-head showdown with March. Paramount had a way of throwing lead men against walls and letting us watch them splat, or not. It really was survival of fittest around there. Grant would be man-toy to Mae West one week, soldier, gigolo, callow playboy the next. It was great training and he'd use it to improve. Wonder if he and Rock Hudson ever discussed career parallels.






Eagle is more March's show, however. I presume he is the Eagle, and the Hawk, Grant, or maybe that's Carole Lombard's spot. I'd know better if her part weren't denuded by Code-cuts imposed on a reissue and never put back, the gone footage evidently out for keeps. What a sap to energy watching these and knowing you're not getting all of goods. March meets Lombard on Paris leave and she gives it up for patriotism sake, plus being turned on by tormented types. Did combatants doing furlough ramp up war-is-hell mien to get better, or at least quicker, laid? I'd ask a veteran, but who of them are left? Works for March here, though it needs reading between clipped lines to know his score. I sensed dialogue dropped, and looks like a whole scene got jettisoned by later PCA authority (a repair to Lombard's hotel?). What's the good of whining, just take it as is, or forget the watch, which I'd rather not, as The Eagle and The Hawk remains strong meat, and March registers well. There's Jack Oakie too, in for fun, but also effective in a finish we don't expect. The Eagle and The Hawk comes on TCM in a transfer so old it still has the MCA logo from syndicated TV. It's lousy beside the DVD set which also has The Devil and The Deep plus The Last Outpost, two others with Cary Grant.




Monday, April 20, 2020

Down But Not Out ...

Blogger Bit By a Google Bug

Greenbriar images of the past month took a powder this weekend and remain AWOL. It's a problem faced by many in the blogging community, and efforts are being made to resolve it. Google techs are on the job and assure us the problem can and will be fixed. Greenbriar has experienced blackouts of one sort or another, many in fact, since 2005 when doors opened. I've stuck with Google since they took over hosting duties, as they have been efficient and responsive to user needs. Fortunately, Greenbriar archives are intact with photos, ads, etc. still on view (comment pages also operative). It is just April entries and a few from March that are affected. There will be a new column to go up as soon as things are back to normal. Like the voice says as we wait interminably for live operators, "Thank You For Your Patience."

UPDATE --- 4/23 --- The problem still isn't fixed, as is evident below, but I am able to upload new posts, as in evident above. The humorous take-off on The Satan Bug ("The Google Bug") comes courtesy Griff.  




Thursday, April 16, 2020

Where Vincent Price Steals A State


The Baron Of Arizona (1950) Is Lippert Spelled Deluxe

A fascinating historic premise that Sam Fuller, a student of America's colorful past, dug up and proposed to Robert Lippert as one of his budget trio for the producer's B factory. Fuller's yarn told of a sharpie who faked documents toward ownership of the entire state of Arizona, a page from the past that had surprisingly not be addressed by movies before 1950, a natural for Believe It Or Don't telling. Lippert committed larger-than-ever spend of between three and four hundred thousand, according to Variety, a meaningful step up from an average $70K that went into that company's output. Taking titular, and unexpected, lead was Vincent Price, who'd from there on call this his favorite role. It was departure from character and chill work the actor would be associated with, something of a tour de force that Price could point proudly to on his resume.




The rented Nassour studio, where Africa Screams had lately wrapped, was host to the Baron crew. Filming wrapped a day ahead of schedule in November, 1949, at which point Lippert took a look at a rough cut, then sent the crew back to Arizona location for "four-to-five days" (Variety) of additional shooting, the producer having decided to boost the budget on what shaped up as a special for his low-cost company. Lippert thought enough of the finished product to fly himself and a print to New York for arrange of countrywide Baron bookings which he'd oversee personally. This was still an era where an independent could roll up sleeves and stump for product on man-to-man basis with exhibs. Many such dates were settled over drinks in management offices, guys like Lippert calling many a far-flung showman by first name and knowing his favored brand of liquor. Bob stayed busy into 1950 with not only Baron business, but thirty-two other releases flowing through the thirty-four exchanges he maintained in the US and Canada.




Quality turnout of the film led to beefed up campaigning on Lippert's part, even a tie-in with postal inspectors who'd print up and display "wanted" posters showing Vincent Price in Baron guise. $100K was pledged toward exploitation for The Baron Of Arizona, an unprecedented layout for Lippert. Ad placement in nationally distributed magazines was also a first for the company, which till then had kept bally regional. A gala Phoenix premiere was arranged for February 29, 1950 to which a "planeload of stars" was sent. Live television coverage played a part in events as well, a possible first linkage of on-the-spot vid to a film opening in that state. Variety expressed doubt as to boxoffice prospects, its reviewer cautioning that Baron's "drama slant mitigates its chances in the general action market." It was also suggested that the film's 96 minute run time be "tightened." New York's Palace Theatre took the brunt of Baron's weakness in urban markets --- only $14K for a first (and only) week wherein vaudeville was tendered with the feature. By June '50, however, Lippert was said to be "flushed" by overall Baron success as he addressed a national meeting of the exchange force, excitement over the pic surpassed only by the larger splash made by Rocketship XM, a hit that dwarfed everything so far offered by Lippert's shop. The Baron Of Arizona was released on DVD by Criterion among three Samuel Fuller features in their "Eclipse Series 5." Other titles were The Steel Helmet and I Shot Jesse James. Quality is excellent for each. The Criterion set may be out of print, as I did not see it offered at Amazon, although there is at least one listing on Ebay. 




Monday, April 13, 2020

Close Doors --- Then Talk About It


Would King's Row Shock Like The Book Did?

They Talk About It In Whispers!

More Daringly Than Ever!

Behind Closed Doors!
So 1942 offers King’s Row and The Magnificent Ambersons, two peas in a late nineteenth-century pod. Midwest settings, family traumas, high drama. Sales tags eerily similar, “The Family They Talk About Behind Closed Doors” (Ambersons), “The story of the town they talk about in whispers” (King’s Row). Both were pitched to sensation, but only King’s Row stuck, thanks in part to a hot and recent novel from which it derived. Ambersons was decorum to King’s Row heavy breathing. A war public wanted gears switched high, so where a thing was period set, it better be sexed-up to feed a modern appetite. King’s Row satisfied that and Ambersons did not. Did word-of-mouth call the latter a counterfeit after ads promised “Real-Life Screened More Daringly Than It’s Ever Been Before” Cash tills told the story, King’s a sensation at five million in rentals worldwide, Ambersons the more-less abject failure with $820K. They were roughly a same in cost, both a million more/less (Ambersons $1.1 million). Ultimate winner would be Ambersons, of course, where prestige is the carrot, and who cares? say scholars, to what 1942 boobacracy preferred. All depends in the end on how you like melodrama poured, still-life subdued as Ambersons, or cracklin’ like a storm that is King’s Row. I’ve room on my marquee for both.




Note an Intermission Policy for Chicago's State-Lake First Run


Has literature lost its capacity to shock? Is there anything left for us to talk about “in whispers”? King’s Row the novel was raw as respectability came, a Peyton Place for the 40’s, and like that next-decade sensation, a lure to screen transfer, except … how could it get by a rigid-as-ever Code? Warners received a terse PCA memo shortly after winning the hot bidded Henry Bellaman property. “Industry policy,” it seemed, may prevent any attempt to film King’s Row. From such stuff are compromises made, had been before with worse prospects. Everyone scoffs at censors, did from a start of movies, but face facts, which were that Breen and associates were a studio-allied barrier against state-local meddle with screen commerce, but sometimes even their limits weren’t limited enough to suit hard-nose that was yokel boards (Ohio and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye a for-instance). Then there was the Legion Of Decency, who danced not to PCA tune, and would condemn Hollywood output where it suited them (see Kiss Me, Stupid, which was Code-passed, Legion crushed). Priests spoke to apx. twenty-five percent of a US public, and many more listened where it came to picking films for family view. To incite them was to court loss. King’s Row was more book than Warners needed in any event, a first 200 pages useful, the rest surplusage. There was every perversion on record in this small town, Bellaman having exposed “hypocrisy” in each paragraph. Hottest of his potatoes was the incest theme, pivotal to the yarn, impossible for Warners to retain. Transgressors were a Dr. Alexander Tower and daughter Cassandra, ultimately played onscreen by Claude Rains and Betty Field. He kills her, then himself, to atone for sins and guard a promising future for his medical protégé Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings). King’s Row associate producer David Lewis and writer Casey Robinson had to cleanse fate of father-daughter, letting them die as in the book, but for reasons censorship could abide.






Here’s general rule of survivors who give testimony re classic movies: Where credit is due, two guys at least will claim it. I call this the Bugs Bunny Rule. Remember animator(s) who said they invented him? King’s Row contest was for who cracked the incest nut. Was it David Lewis or Casey Robinson? Latter took the book on a cruise, saw no way to bell the cat, and pitched pages into the drink. Robinson years later told interviewer Joel Greenberg how it all clicked at that very moment, “ … as it hit the water I got the idea that solved the major censorship problem of the book --- to change the subject from incest to an inherited tendency toward insanity.” All this well and good, except for David Lewis telling author James Curtis around a same time that he came up with the incest-insanity switch, and then told Robinson about it. File this under success having many fathers. For all I know, Wallis, Jack L., maybe the guard at the gate, made a same claim. Frankly, I like the inherited insanity gag better. At least that’s something I’ve run into occasionally on journey through life. To general unease re Dr. Tower and offspring as experienced by 1942 first-runners to King’s Row, I consulted again with Conrad Lane, who gave me the following account, of a very adult movie as seen by a boy eleven years old at the time:








My brother and I went to see King’s Row in May, 1942, at the Liberty Theatre in Alexandria, Indiana, me with no idea as to what it was about, but being a fan of Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan, this seemed like a good choice. My ticket cost eleven cents. We sat down in the auditorium, expecting a newsreel, shorts ... usual accompany to the feature, however, because of length, there were none. The curtain opened and King’s Row began. A female voice from behind loudly exclaimed, “Shucks, no comedy!” There were many disturbing aspects to King’s Row for this eleven-year-old, not the least of which was Dr. Tower’s relationship with his daughter. I realized something was badly amiss, but could not figure just what. The source novel had been discussed, not so much within my earshot, and I had no awareness of censorable content within its pages. I was unaware of anyone in my small town having read it. In hindsight, I realize that Orestes, Indiana, population 432 at the time, was a somewhat backward community. Being an observant, if not precocious, child, I had ears open to household conversation, especially where sotto voced. My mother and brother (the latter age sixteen … three months later, he enlisted with the Marines) discussed (in “whispers,” like ads said?) the incest theme which was part of King’s Row in print, but removed from the filmic treatment. So that was it!, my eyes opened to what went on between an obviously disturbed father-daughter. Another of youth’s doors unlocked. I had cracked a Code rigidly enforced by Hollywood censors. How much did I understand of incest as a dramatic concept, let alone real-life issue? Maybe more than was typical for a child of the 40’s, for I had heard of incidents around our small town, mostly of brothers and sisters in forbidden embrace. Turns out we were living in a virtual King’s Row and I never knew it.






King’s Row was filled with dream parts for young players, a laboratory to show what Warner contract talent might deliver if given an opportunity. A lot of them would not be seen to such advantage again. Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Coleman, each said King’s Row was the best work they ever had, or expected to have. If you’re the Oomph Girl, with a job like this bookended by Navy Blues or Wings For The Eagle, you knew Santa Claus didn’t drop down WB chimneys once a year … more like once a decade. Sheridan told John Kobal and others how she “fought” for King’s Row, lobbied brass, agreed to test. They needed a top name to sell grim content, so she was it. Reagan might have spun his part to major stardom, but war service interrupted, and things weren’t the same when he reported back in 1946. A tricky spot was Betty Field’s (Cassandra Tower). She was brought in from the outside after Bette Davis expressed interest, then withdrew it, Ida Lupino backing off for same reason … King’s Row was an ensemble, and both these were too prominent to absorb into that. A role difficult as Cassandra needed more than run-of-mill Warner actresses could give, but imagine if you can Priscilla Lane, Joan Leslie, or Susan Peters … each were tested. My pick from the three Susan Peters, the others too scrubbed and wholesome. Some of crew, and later critics, saw a weakest link in Robert Cummings as Parris. Ideal pick was Tyrone Power, but Jack Warner knew futility of pursuing Zanuck for the borrow. Word was DFZ wanted two with Errol Flynn for one of Power, plus other concessions. When is there less chance of getting something you want than when you let the other person know how badly you want it. Would Power as starriest-by-far-star have thrown King’s Row off balance?








Sam Wood directed King’s Row. He gets a rap that I attribute to Groucho’s disdain for how he oversaw Opera and Races. There is too his reliance on William Cameron Menzies to give visual distinction to many of features Wood directed. I often hear a smart man defined as one who aligns himself with smarter men, or hires them where/when he can. One who recognizes own limits and lets others compensate for them has limitless potential for success, but that takes put-aside of ego, so too few utilize this anything-but secret weapon. Sam Wood strikes me as one who did. I picture him lounging around the pool and worrying a lot (not) about insider estimate of his talent. Repositories of genius come in all shapes. Wood would arrive on King’s Row set and ask James Wong Howe (director of photography) what we were doing today, then inquire if Bill Menzies’ set was ready. Delegation lifted to highest art. But come time for Wood to confer with cast, which he did so quietly, often to no ears other than ones addressed, and something special would happen, according to high-on-Wood remarks from years-later interview subjects Ann Sheridan, Betty Field, and Nancy Coleman. Performances like those in King’s Row did not come off by chance. Someone perceptive had to have guided them, and that person, by all accounts, was Sam Wood. Is this then, a most critical of director duties? If so, then Wood was a great director.


Lurid X10 for a 1946 Reissue




Then-reviews weren’t generous. We expect settled classics to have been settled from a start, but that was nearly never so. James Agee was sarcastic toward Casablanca, Manny Farber reserved re Citizen Kane. Bosley Crowther ripped into King’s Row, as “gloomy and ponderous,” “turgidly unfolds …,” “one of the bulkiest blunders to come out of Hollywood in some time.” Otis Ferguson’s review was mixed, as in “I liked the picture, but …” (“the faults of King’s Row are length … and that curse and damn it in all pictures, talk, and then some talk, and after that we’ll have some talk”).  Even Variety, with eye toward trade, saw flaws and called them, but stopped short of an outright pan. Contemporary reviews can sometimes undermine love for what I call classics. Were these critics wiser and not so easily fooled? More discriminating where I am not? King’s Row sweeps me up, carries me away, but can emotion rule over sense? Sure it can, and probably should. I’m not blind to King’s Row flaws, but the best of it goes to where I deepest live, maple syrup of which is Korngold music. That swell when Scotty Beckett steps over the fence rail, and then grown-to-man Robert Cummings crosses back, is what transporting impact of movies is all about. King’s Row streams in HD at Amazon and Vudu, often plays that way at TCM.
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