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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Princess Of Passion ... Slave Of Sin!


Backlot Slaves Of Passion for MGM's White Cargo (1942)


A rubber plantation in Africa, Hedy Lamarr the temptress "Tondelayo." White Cargo was more revisit to Red Dust than adapt of a hoary melodrama staged first in 1923, revived less successfully since. This was sex property known, if not still notorious, certainly so in context of Code-shackled 1942. Issue was less steamy clinching than a miscegenation theme the PCA would not now permit, White Cargo being raw-bone account of a right white Englishman debased by lust and ultimate marriage to a black African siren, her near-naked much of time, a sole reason anyone recalled off-Broadway sensation White Cargo started off as. Greenwich Village was the launch, 702 performances the reward, plus road companies spread across a country like locusts. Word was that Earl Carroll, of Vanities fame, mounted White Cargo for all of a hundred dollars, nickels to a hungry cast, pennies for tacky setting where they’d emote. The play got busted in the hinters for both content and over-exposure of respective Tondelayos, latter the dusky threat whose name was 20’s shortcut to ruin of men-kind. Among many who played rubber ram-rodding “Witzel” was Spencer Tracy, then Clark Gable, White Cargo under heading of work for starter-outs who took what they could get. Gable had to recall Witzel when he was “Dennis Carson” in Red Dust, latter a retread of spent rubber, but what better yarn to exploit gifts of precode? To ship Cargo again was chancy by 1942, but MGM could not thrive on Andy Hardy alone, and why keep Hedy Lamarr around if not for stuff like this? A breath of fetid air was bulwark against a Leo thought too tamed by a Code that kept him caged. White Cargo was opportunity for the Lion to show some claws.


A 1929 British Part-Talkie Version





1923 On-Stage Cargo Clinch
Red Dust made much of the rubber theme, Tully Marshall seeing reward of growing it “every time a baby sucks on a rubber nipple.” Clark Gable calls raw output, drawn from trees in Indo-China, an “indignant mass” that can be tamed only by man’s intervention. He hands dripping spew to timid Mary Astor as prelude to seduction. Concept of rubber and its manufacture was sexualized to spoof point, Gable, Astor, especially Jean Harlow, in on the dirty joke. Meaningful was White Cargo barely mentioning rubber, only once in passing as I remember. Not because it was irrelevant by 1942, but because it was too much so, as ask any boy fresh to armed services who carried handy packs in his rear pocket. The race grenade was tamed early and easy. Rather than be black, Lamarr’s "Tondelayo" would be revealed as part Egyptian, the rest Arab, still forbidden fruit, but less so than depicted in the play. Dialogue stressed the switch within minutes of her screen arrival so there would be no misunderstanding. Once over that hurdle, the PCA had no quarrel, as denuding the rest was simple work. Main object was making a public think Metro had jumped a censor fence, with Lamarr for bait. They’d be successful at that, White Cargo done cheap ($570K negative cost), and seeing profit of $1.2 million, lots considering what jungle rot this was.


Hedy's Hairdresser Gets a Trim From Director Richard Thorpe




Foundation for selling was key art to define appeal inside. In this instance, it was Lamarr in her “Lurong,” which we were told was a “sarong with allure,” proof again that sometimes it was fun having your intelligence insulted. Just Hedy dancing a sort of hula with bumps was pitch plenty, and never mind much else. When not in sway, Tondelayo laid across settees in erotic surrender. Was this promising more than White Cargo could deliver? Certainly, and every hep patron knew it, but wasn’t that joy too of carnivals and hootch shows? Sometimes just the promise of unalloyed sex was enough to get a job done, Lamarr in less clothes than customary, close-ups intense as to make one think von Sternberg was consulting. No surprise either to see Lamarr tanned deep, an angle flogged before in Lady Of The Tropics, where she’d seduce and ruin Robert Taylor. MGM made cottage industry of men felled by tropical disease that was women not of their caste. Leslie Howard was spent in Never The Twain Shall Meet on dark temptation that was Conchita Montenegro, her very name a warning, even if Montenegro herself was Spanish, not black. You needed a scorecard to know romance disqualifications as listed by Hollywood and censors that watched. White Cargo was adroit as any for dampening fuse that was race-mixing.


From a Vintage Fan-Kept Scrapbook. "Dorothy Lee and I" Went To See White Cargo






Hedy Lamarr Off-Set with Richard Carlson
Shot altogether on Metro’s backlot Tarzanville, White Cargo never looks so cheap as it actually was. Richard Thorpe of past jungle droving was hurried enough not to need breathing down his damp collar, having begun on silent serials that verily defined rush work. This director knew the drill and kept ahead of it, which did nothing for posterity’s back view, but what was that against reliable employment plus status being a Leo helmsman? Less noted amidst swarm of sex was White Cargo being all talk, and indoor talk at that, nary a native to uprise or tiger to breach the compound. White Cargo was Hedy Lamarr’s to salvage, her an only thing in final analysis to sell, others miscast or annoying. Post-Miniver Walter Pidgeon jars in one-note shout mode, White Cargo touted to his certain embarrassment as worthy follow-up to historic hit he had just had with Greer Garson. Frank Morgan shades his dipso doctor nicely, him popular enough for MGM to float a few starring vehicles around this period. Morgan had goods along with a public’s loyal following. Not a few would attend a Lion show just for knowing Frank Morgan was somewhere in it.


Broadway's Capital Theatre Packs For White Cargo. Note War Bond Appeals.




Fun and surprises award attention. White Cargo on stage came to shock conclusion of Witzel forcing a would-be murderous Tondelayo to drink poison with which she means to kill her gone-to-seed husband. The stagger and die finish was final admonition that ones of a Tondelayo sort were best viewed from mid-rows distance, to be not and never touched. I wondered at first if Pidgeon’s Witzel would apply the lethal dose, or merely have Tondelayo/Lamarr led off in cuffs, which of course, would take the sting off White Cargo's tail. Metro makes expected stand for artistic integrity by letting Pidgeon kill off Lamarr as he might a rabid dog, his murder a hot-blooded one for her trying, if unsuccessfully, to off a fellow Empire representative. White Cargo, I’d add, takes place in 1910, drama related in flashbacks from 1942. Pidgeon as Witzel is established as law and punisher unto himself, hint given in a first-reel kangaroo trial for how he will deal with Tondelayo. Still it’s a shock to see her executed so summarily. I can imagine this as reward the Code gave MGM for ceding to directives otherwise. Bargaining with the PCA was complex procedure, one where a clever enough studio negotiator could score victories, if small ones.






Hedy Lamarr was said to prefer White Cargo over staid job of H.M. Pulham, Esq. I suspect opposite was the case, for many more like Tondelayo could amount to a Maria Montez dead end. But then DeMille surely saw White Cargo and said, yes, my Delilah. Lamarr told Films In Review years later that the best MGM money she got was $5K a week. For White Cargo, Lamarr wore “five successive layers of a fluid foundation,” a two-hour daily ordeal. There was also gold dust gunk sprayed on her, remnants of which got on furniture and other actor’s clothes, all this to make Lamarr properly “oily” in accordance with expectation of natives. One could speculate on how it all smelled. Fan press said Hedy was on a mend from her broken engagement to George Montgomery. Should I have asked George about this the time we rode down an elevator at a Knoxville western show? By the time White Cargo was out, they were selling war bonds in lobbies, so one could purchase without springing also for admission. Some houses, however, let you in free with a bond buy. Thus did theatres have a greatest-ever value to the government, another reason for temporary hands-off re oligopoly the picture industry thrived on. Lamarr’s entrance line, “I am Tondelayo,” was common coin for comics and youth. It was also all over ads. Conrad Lane told me of classmates, boys and girls, age 12 like him, going about school saying “I am Tondelayo,” White Cargo regarded pretty much a joke by all of them (to Conrad, the movie was “a bit shallow”). An “Exciting Love Song” was composed by MGM staffers Howard Dietz and Vernon Duke. I tried to locate it online, but no soap (not even sheet music on Ebay). Has anyone done a survey of songs that drop off a face of the earth? White Cargo is available from Warner Archive.




Thursday, May 28, 2020

Take Away Applause, and What Did They Have?


Why Act If You Never Hear Them Clap?

Note I Don't Need to ID Rock and Yvonne, But The Lunts? That's Something Else 
What more dispiriting than to perform, and receive nothing from those who see you do it? Stage players shunned movies for this reason, plus scores more. “I did it for the money” was said more times by imported-from-stage actors than “They went thataway” by screen cowboys. Some never got over shame of appearing before cameras, pool and mansion poor swaps for artistic integrity. Katharine Cornell refused to star in films, so we barely know her. Same for the Lunts, who co-starred once for The Guardsman, then retreated. I’ve read arguments from many a memoir: No one to play to, save techs on set, and they seldom noticed, plus shooting broke into bits and seldom done in proper sequence. You’d perform a climactic scene in the morning and the opener after lunch. There was no such thing as sustained performing in movies. Those who began and continued careers on screens were better served. A Rock Hudson or Yvonne DeCarlo were not off-put being filmed, because it was all they knew, or wanted to know. Actors from the stage underestimated film-incubated talent at their peril. Deferred gratification from an invisible audience was reality understood by all those cinema-wise. For many, however, no gratification came at all, because here’s the thing … movie stars could not sit among us and enjoy our reactions to their projected image. How could they, when the very celebrity they sought barred them from experiencing their art with the viewers it was made for?


Conrad Nagel Being a Commodity, with Garbo in The Mysterious Lady


Lots did not care. Paul Muni refused to watch himself, shunned rushes, then premieres. Conrad Nagel for a late-in-life interview made his point clear, and spoke undoubtedly for others: “ … I never took much pleasure in seeing myself on screen. It was just a business. That thing up on the screen was just the commodity I sold. It was a product, nothing personal.” Nagel was a realist, more so than most I suspect, and for that reason perhaps had a longer career to show for his utter detachment. Colleagues, ones to whom approbation meant something, felt its loss keenly and did fret constant over a public they seldom saw, or did so in constricted circumstance. Those stars who entertained service personnel during wartime were stunned by emotional response they evoked. The love was out there, had been all along. They just had not been exposed to it, let alone understood extent of it. Celebrity life would not allow drop-ins to a Bijou in Oshkosh to see how folks liked your newest. Try that short of wearing a false beard or hump back and you’d be mobbed (possible exceptions: Chaplin or Groucho minus mustaches, Lon Chaney as Face #1001, his own). So much of nurturing warmth a country-wide fan base had to give was thus missed, so how could any star realize how popular he/she was?




Tumble-upon truth of your standing came by sheer chance, if at all. Judy Garland was let go by MGM and sorting out prospects in New York when she noticed Summer Stock playing at the 5,230 seat Capital Theatre. Blending into balcony seating, Judy saw the show along with plain folk and basked in their happy reaction, them not knowing she sat nearby. This was an experience apart from studio-rigged premieres where peers and press huzzahed whatever the effort, or lack of it. Garland saw honest response that day from a paying public, privileged access few stars would experience. Spotted coming down stairs, Garland got recognition's surge, only this was spontaneous, a joyous surprise for Judy and a crowd expecting least of all things to see her exiting the Capital alongside them. I wonder if she had ever had an experience quite like this, or would again (Garland differed from most, thanks to live performing and adulation that dependably came of that).




There was an interview with Peter Bogdanovich on TCM where he talked about going to see What’s Up Doc? several times while it played at Radio City Music Hall in 1972, a full house in each instance. Being merely the director, no one knew him, so he got the high, but not the hangover, a treat Barbra Streisand or Ryan O’Neal could not have shared with him. How fair was that? Everyone, it seems, wants celebrity, certainly most players do, most urgently, but look what they give up. It’s like an old fable of the man who wanted wealth, gets it, but finds the price to be … no one to enjoy it with. I toted my boy’s way to the Liberty in late 1967 for Wait Until Dark, wherein blind Audrey Hepburn was beset by thuggery. A shock shot near the end had a baddie suddenly lunging out of pitch black after we thought he was dead, grabbing Audrey by the ankle to screech-raise all us watching, a moment we’d take home and to friends who must see Wait Until Dark. I wondered at the time if Audrey Hepburn dropped in at theatres to gauge reaction to that third act blast. Now I realize: She did not … she could not. So movie stars decried a loss of privacy? Well, they got bushels of it, just for being kept out of the very places that would have rewarded their effort loudest.




Monday, May 25, 2020

Again Against The Grain


Tension Beneath Holiday Cheer

Are movies meant to be read a same way by everyone? I lately feel myself sliding off the grid on revisit to favorites. A job done fine, like Holiday, invites many interpretations, as would any worthwhile art, and why not? I watch a thing and ask if others had a same reaction as mine. They may be in accord, confused, or think I’m nuts. Holiday came out on Blu-Ray, and long being object of cherish, I wanted it. What came as surprise was how story and characters played wholly different this time. Here is either a mark of a really complex picture, or me no longer able to receive narrative in ways I’m supposed to. A great film evolves with its audience, provided they come back to it from time to time. Maybe a “classic” is best defined this way. I went off rails with My Man Godfrey a few months back, and here goes again with Holiday, which in brief reads for me thus: Johnny Case (Cary Grant) brings heiress Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) home where he will meet her rich-in-banking father (Henry Kolker). Johnny is a free spirit, has wherewithal to parlay stock investment into profit enough to afford a Sun Valley vacation where he met Julia. Now they are engaged, despite Julia knowing next to nothing about Johnny’s background. Their marital prospects are challenged by natural doubts of her father, and a sister, Linda Seton (Katharine Hepburn), who by all appearance is emotionally disturbed. That last is where I part most decisively from prevailing views. And spoilers lie ahead, so if you have not seen Holiday, or it’s been awhile, now may be a good time to refresh, then come back and tell me how perverse my interpretation is.


Robert Ames, Mary Astor, and Ann Harding in the 1930 Version of Holiday 




Response to a movie is always personal, should be personal. Why watch otherwise? I like Cary Grant, but do not always trust him. That may be because his screen persona came from whole cloth, having nothing to do, it seemed, with the real Cary Grant. Yes, I want my identification figures to be “themselves,” allowing for endless variant within that self, any great star’s basis for longevity. Trouble is, I could never identify with Cary Grant, even as I’ve always enjoyed him. No Grant could be guileless, not with his looks and charm, so when he acts so, I get suspicious. Where did Holiday money come from that he off-camera invested? We perhaps missed important information for Cukor/Columbia dropping a first reel where Johnny and Julia meet and court one another at the ski resort. Surely more was revealed of Johnny there. Was he perhaps a wife killer enriched by a last victim? Instinct warns me to be wary of Cary (not a bad thing … it enriches “Cary Grant” for me). I wait for him to be irresponsible, spendthrift, maybe caddish. Penny Serenade was early introduction to Grant for me. Also Suspicion. Twice warned then, and at early age. Even Father Goose at the Liberty didn’t fix me. So what does Johnny really want with the Setons, or from them? He walks about their mansion with astonishment, like Robert Williams as “Stew Smith” in Capra’s Platinum Blonde. He does everything but test for echoes and slide down the banister. Johnny had no idea Julia was rich? We may assume he will forgive her for that, or keep the game in play because of it.




Philip Barry wrote Holiday for the stage. There was a 1930 film (included on the Blu-Ray) where Julia was played by Mary Astor, in various stages of undress to make real the contest between her and sister Linda (Ann Harding), at least for men watching. A lot of them, and I know a number who can’t abide Holiday, would project themselves onto 1938 Johnny just long enough to say I’ll take neither sister, then make tracks. Linda as essayed by Hepburn was described by one modern writer as “high-spirited and reclusive.” I’d call her plain unstable, high-spirited in the sense that she is often irrational, as in refusing to attend her sister’s engagement party, reclusive to extent that her family has had long experience having to cover for bad behavior. It is there in dialogue where Julia and Linda finally have it out. A great scene, because we realize how Julia has spent a lifetime tiptoe’ing around “free spirit” that is Linda. What are prospects for Johnny should he settle down with Linda? Give me sane alternative of Julia, plus the job, Dad’s gift of a house, sure-thing cash to see through rest of a Depression, and then some. Now that’s an outcome I can see “Cary Grant” thriving with.




George Cukor Directing The Cast


Holiday mocks the rich, but won't villainize them. Father Seton is polite, reasonable, frankly more understandable to me than is squirrel daughter Linda, or Johnny. I like how he and Julia have quiet talks and identify with each other. When Linda crashes their meditation and jibbers her idea of an engagement party for Julia, you can see a lifetime of coping with her temperament mirrored in their faces. That resignation is beautifully played throughout Holiday by Henry Kolker and Doris Nolan. Will they be relieved to unload Linda on Johnny at the end? Julia by then knows she is better shed of Johnny. Is she right in realizing he’s a flake? I wonder if 1938 audiences saw it her way. Holiday took $733K in domestic rentals, not near expectation for a Columbia “A” of the time, let alone one with names prominent as Grant and Hepburn. Could there have been customer readings that translated to unsatisfactory word-of-mouth? Something queered Holiday, and I won’t accept alibi that it was “too sophisticated.” One writer suggested that ’38 crowds saw Johnny/Cary as a chump for walking away from the Seton’s kind of money, and there's food for thought in that.




So are Linda and Johnny as an alternative really that attractive? And what of Johnny’s best friends, Nick and Susan Potter, as played by Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon, reverse snobs against affluence if there ever was, and unspeakably rude in the bargain. A big issue I have with all of Holiday’s “free spirits” is their treatment of family cousins “Seton and Laura Cram.” Casting Henry Daniell and Binnie Barnes in these parts is too on-the-nose, as we’re pre-disposed to dislike them. Both Daniell and Barnes were fine actors, if ruthlessly typed. Holiday director George Cukor had applied Daniell to bad-guyness for Camille just two years before, Barnes as recent a threat to happy family life of Deanna Durbin in Three Smart Girls. And yes, they are stuck-up and to manor born in Holiday, but does that merit a Fascist salute given them by Linda, Johnny, Ned Seton (Lew Ayres), and the Potters when they enter an upstairs room to greet hosts at a party to which they have been invited? Is this how to greet guests in your home? And where does Johnny and the Potters come off joining in such atrocious behavior? They don’t know the Crams, never even met them before. This is where I truly part company with people I’m supposed to embrace in Holiday. And note snide reaction Seton Cram gets for complementing Johnny on his previous and wise investment. A friendly gesture as I see it, altogether rebuked. Johnny, the Potters, and bratty/cracked Linda are largely unsympathetic to me from this point on.




And what is this child retreat to which a sulking Linda goes when the party evades her design? All she needs is a phonograph with “Eroica” on the spindle, and she’d be cousin to N. Bates rather than the more got-it-together Crams. Ned Seton, as essayed by Lew Ayres, is more likeable, insightful as to situations, but less aggressive or nasty about it. Ned is Holiday’s casualty for that, but shades the narrative nicely. Also perceptive is Julia and Mr. Seton downstairs trying to finesse party attendance clearly aware of delicate problem Linda represents. Is her self-isolation an event familiar from previous occasions? Understanding among guests suggest it is. Her sister finally speaks plain when Linda’s outspokenness, read lack of tact, threatens to derail Julia’s engagement. “I think quite often I’ve given in, in order to avoid scenes and upsets …” strikes me as the very words a fed-up person might say to an unstable family member they’ve spent a lifetime making allowance for. This for me is the dramatic highlight of Holiday, but would emphasize again that none of these elements represent flaws in the film. They are, in fact, what gives it majesty, at least for this viewer. Do I read Linda so singly for not liking Katharine Hepburn? No, because I do not dislike her. In fact, having lately watched Summertime again, I believe I finally “get” Hepburn, but that is a story for another post.




Thursday, May 21, 2020

Pre-Code "Smother Love" From RKO

Legit Cast For 1926-27 Broadway Run

The Silver Cord (1933) Still Has Capacity To Shock

Weirdish mother love as x-ray’ed by a pre-code cast, The Silver Cord was used by AMC back in 80’s day of early RKO dredge, then came Coventry when Turner/Warners fell heir to the lot, some left to wonder if The Silver Cord was avoided for rights lapse, or content reasons, all righted when TCM sprang it last week, a prehistoric transfer yes, but let's give thanks for access at all. I watched, did inquiry re the play, which was staged from December 1926 into midway a following year, a hit by Broadway reckoning. Sidney Howard wrote it, him of later GWTW scripting and early exit crushed by a runaway farm tractor. Rough being remembered less from how you live than horrific way you die. Legit drama by the 20's needed novelty or a sting in tails to attract buyers, as seating did not come cheap, this among myriad of reasons silent shadows overtook live performing, be it B’way, further flung vaude, or stock companies on an iron lung. Plays to be successful would do so on a diet of forbidden fruit. Howard led The Silver Cord with a suffocating Mom in Laura Hope Crews that “shocked” some who lived on notion that bearing offspring conferred inarguable sainthood (Crews “must revel in this role, so rich is it,” said The Bookman’s Larry Barretto). Hint of incest, hammer of it observed many, was giddiest of impurities brought to bear on The Silver Cord, and it must have struck a chord, because troupes are reviving the play to this day, which speaks at least to ongoing Mommy issues amongst potential patronage.




Old-timey reviews are fun to read. Robert Benchley lent waggish wit to his Life column, calling The Silver Cord “something to be seen and acrimoniously debated.” For many, the play was less nasty than queasy, and that would extend to RKO’s movie. Howard had gone past mere heavy-hand Momism to Freud-inspired lunacy, that aimed cunningly at 20’s faddism that wore Freud as stylishly as a 60’s generation would a Beatles wig. And lest we forget, Freud was still alive when The Silver Cord was staged, him but lately tossing future director and then-news scribe Billy Wilder out of his house. So seeing The Silver Cord, and being able to at least half-way dissect it, if “acrimoniously,” was one's claim to sophistication, and of all things desired by New Yorkers, that was a top. Conflicting characters in The Silver Cord, primarily the mother vs. daughter-in-law, were shaded so that neither came off a pure black or white, Crews so good, said one critic, that “one is tempted to believe she has the better of the argument, so convincing is she.” The play presented “a living problem,” sensitive enough that men would need “a list of ladies they could not take to it.” Certainly "married women with children" should be kept away, the observer (Barretto again) not kidding. “We should advise advertising The Silver Cord as “For Men Only.” Problem was, would men see themselves in mother-fixated sons portrayed here? Not that the play has lost its potency, according to producer Dale Carmon, who revived The Silver Cord in 2013, and reported audiences “shocked and entertained” nightly (the modern twist, a man assuming the Laura Hope Crews role).


A 2013 Cast Revives The Silver Cord


RKO had something of a pre-sold product in The Silver Cord, this extending to John Cromwell as director. He had guided the play in 1926-27. Greenbriar has lauded Cromwell before. His, like George Cukor’s, was a smooth transition from stage craft to screen. Cromwell knew play scripts could not be transposed as is. “I believe there are very few plays in their original form which lend themselves to the motion picture, because the medium is so totally different.” Cromwell recognized films as a visual medium, the story in most plays “static.” Screen narrative had to “flow,” and be told “through the eye and the emotions.” To this director’s mind, a play “tells its story through the mind and the emotions.” Cromwell realized that any screen narrative is subject to a number of interpretations, vetting by many hands. He worked well in a system built upon collaboration, this but one of reasons Cromwell saw success directing for David Selznick, who had observed Cromwell at work during a mutual sojourn for RKO, where they were a producer-director team on Sweepings. I do not find The Silver Cord stage-bound, realizing however, that others might. It depends on one’s comfort level with early 30’s drama, that is, drama adapted from plays where action, or more accurately dialogue, is limited to a handful of settings. Cromwell opens up The Silver Cord by moving his cast within a house and large rooms they occupy, so we don’t feel hemmed in by a single table with chairs. One long tracking scene has Irene Dunne and Joel McCrea starting on a second floor, talking as they walk down a flight of stairs, then entering a kitchen where she sits down as he explores an icebox and food stuffs inside, necessary dialogue covered while visuals vary and keep us engaged.


Fan Mag Partial Pan, But a Larger Critical Community Lauded The Silver Cord


Cromwell insisted on, and usually got, several weeks of rehearsal prior to cameras turning. He wanted actors to know their interpretations so that shooting out of sequence would not throw them. The director wrote of his technique in a 1937 book, We Make The Movies, that essay included in Richard Koszarski’s Hollywood Directors 1914-1940, an anthology I recommended highly. The Silver Cord had a negative cost of $153K, earned $319K in worldwide rentals. Pandro Berman was by now supervising RKO’s yearly program, his associate producers not an overall gifted lot, so strong directors were needed to put across those few Radio releases in a given season with potential to be hits. Variety cited Irene Dunne as a name draw, even though The Silver Cord was really Laura Hope Crews' picture. Lines and situations meant to be dramatic were getting laughs from rural patronage that mistook The Silver Cord for another “mother-in-law comedy” (Variety: “ … this is not the fault of the adaptation, but rather of the audience”). Selling was tough for exhib hesitation to tip off gloom hung like crepe over The Silver Cord. A click would need to come along confessional lines expected of Dunne, or any of RKO lead women, vehicles for which was a company brand, at least so long as censorship stayed lax. The Silver Cord departs from that formula, none among RKO staff, let alone studio rivals, having ventured near content like this. Fact is, there hasn’t been a same sort as The Silver Cord since. Worth seeing then, for one-of-kindness plus fine performances and direction to commend it.




Monday, May 18, 2020

You Tube Time Travel


Make It 1911 Again

I long had this bug in my head that said nickelodeon shorts were hopelessly primitive, and so were folks that went to see them. The image is persuasive, dirty sheets or chipped paint upon walls they watched, stench of revolving unwashed come to be loud or sleep off disease/drunkenness. Fewer, it seems, rhapsodized for a “Golden Age” of nickel theatres. Maybe they weren't so nostalgia-soaked as we are, being buffeted by constant change that kept recall at bay. Myth suggests no one but then-outliers liked flickers. To that, I now come much enlightened, thanks to You Tube and elsewhere exam of 1911, a time not altogether spent bending backs over a plow until typhoid or whooping cough took you out. Survival was still an only coin of the realm for most, but what of Little Old New York as captured by a Swedish camera crew that year, footage kept pristine since, and lately upscaled by You Tube magicians to 4K at 60 frames per second, subdued color and sound effects added for the trip back. I’ve never seen historic footage so vivid, nor arrived at such understanding of lives lived modern during what too long was thought a fallow, at least deprived, period (tough times, and then down goes the Titanic). Here is a closest to stepping among these people and seeing how they lived, fit humbling to knock me off a century-later high horse. Watch this enough and you may merge a la Twilight Zone into time past and view from the screen a formerly smug self who thought times were in all ways improved since then.




I wanted to look at the 1911 tour several times and then watch a film from that year, my choice a Griffith-Biograph called The Battle (a Civil War reel), these toward understanding what kind of people were going to movies and what sort of circumstance at least some of them lived in. Gotham at the time had streetcars plenty, elevated rail service, motor vehicles passing alongside horse drawn carriages. I was surprised by how here-and-now they seemed, a reaction helped by amazing clarity of these images and addition of color, latter muted to pleasing and authentic effect. There was unhurried grace to 1911, at least it seemed so with men in straw boaters, all wearing suit/tie, women kitted with glorious hats and some with parasols. I waited for Judy and Fred to walk down the avenue and join their Easter Parade. We could envy the era for sights like these alone, but all is not quaint. This is life racing toward what it would become for us, startling to realize that here too were folks going to nickelodeons well along a takeover of leisure hours spent. I sat looking at this passerby parade knowing most of them had at least sampled movies. 1911 was fifteen years into public-attended shows. Infancy were arguably behind the picture industry. Single reels, sometimes two, were still the norm, features waiting around a corner. Informality of filmgoing helped the habit along. You could go and stay, make it a day, or pass a lunch hour, relax from shopping or having your hat blocked. Shorts being short effected a same needle-drop mentality as vaudeville, a dud segued to something good because nothing lasted long. Here were penny arcades grown up, with everyone sat before a same strip of celluloid. That drew crowds unprecedented, and the more movies improved, the more intense loyalties got. Each year was a vault over ones before. Critics disdainful of film knew they would have to take it seriously … and soon. Companies like Biograph were delivering goods to command attention, and woe betide a press ignoring them, lest you become irrelevant as competing entertainments soon would be.




Trade paper columnists were earliest to regard films seriously. Many moved from industry boosting to individual review of reels thought a humblest of fare even by those who made them. Frank Woods was one who early-understood the power of film. He wanted and got his own New York Dramatic Mirror column, starting in 1909. Within a year he’d know a “strange power of attraction possessed by motion pictures.” Woods observed the “impression of reality the motion picture exerts on the minds of the spectators, an influence akin to hypnotism or magnetism by visual suggestion.” Woods took his position a bold step further by citing this influence as “more powerful … than is possible in any sort of stage production or in printed fact or fiction.” As Woods saw it, and few followed the “mental attitude” of early screen spectators so closely, there was more than casual viewing at play, the average nickel patron “looking at what his mind accepts as reality.” So far as Woods saw it, the stage could not, would never, exert such power. I like how he does not argue for film as art, but simply as a conductor for emotions an audience could not get from any then-established arts. By classifying the appeal of movies as magic, which certainly it was, still is, Woods relieved himself of further duty to explain broader meaning of what audiences saw in 1911. Maybe we would have been better off leaving it at that rather than strangulating over "art" aspect of movies. Woods backed his radical position by writing scenarios for the Biograph Company he so admired, eventually becoming a close associate to D.W. Griffith. His foresight stood Woods well, Griffith’s wife reporting years later that his accumulated wealth enabled purchase of an entire California town, called “Linwood,” after Mrs. Woods. Frank Woods clearly had realities figured out far ahead of most.  






The Battle was sure instance of movies as magnet, reality of Civil warring shown full on and outdoors as opposed to a stage thing that had to be accepted on imagined terms. D.W. Griffith directed The Battle for Biograph. Many thought it his best so far and remembered it so right up to opener day for The Birth Of A Nation. In fact, The Battle was tabloid warm-up to Birth, with not a little of power fuller realized by the four years later epic. I watched The Battle and visualized customers stepping off trams, or maybe a horseless carriage, to attend. Films had matured by 1911, were more ambitious. The Battle serves its title with big scale action, constant movement in foregrounds, plus more to the rear of principal focus, so that eyes are engaged by multiple levels of drama. Almost offhand is troop marching and parades beyond a fence that is behind Blanche Sweet saying farewell to her departing sweetheart, Griffith letting his spectacle be incidental to the narrative rather than dominating it. If someone told me Matthew Brady shot newsreels in addition to his Civil War still photos, I might swear it was him behind Griffith’s camera, the whole thing happening in 1863 rather than recreated for 1911. The Battle turns on events unique to our war between states, such as men gone to fight a foe mere miles away, or closer. A highlight sees Blanche Sweet confronted by combat right off her front porch, the man to whom she has pledged troth fleeing for refuge behind Sweet skirts. Balance of action is him clearing the yellow stain through a heroic mission to secure ammo. The Battle tells a fast, crisp story, and movement is profuse, staying in no one place too long. This was the kind of subject that justified nickelodeons raising admissions to a dime, or more, at venues less rattle-trap than real theatres they would become. Product at a level of The Battle made such upgrades supportable, movies pulling up even with advances other aspects of modern life were achieving. So I got much from my You Tube visit to 1911, and recommend the twenty or so minutes to anyone inclined to make a similar jump. “A Trip Through New York City in 1911” is here, and The Battle, also HD and very nice despite a bar code in the frame, is here.
grbrpix@aol.com
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