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Friday, July 31, 2020

The Soundtracker Of Our Lives

The Steiner Story Here At Last 

I attacked Music By Max Steiner: The Epic Life Of Hollywood's Most Influential Composer soon as it came through the door. White on rice. How long have we waited for Max Steiner’s life to be truly told? Over most of my lifetime, at least. I was moved, always and intensely, by Max’s music. He was the first composer known to me by name and recognizable sound. Anyone else cry at the end of Two On A Guillotine? I did, at the Liberty, in early 1965, sensing it was music that wrung my tears rather than plight shared by Caesar Romero and Connie Stevens. This was Max Steiner’s final score, though one done previous, Those Calloways for Disney, was released later in ’65, says author Steven C. Smith. He also wrote the definitive Bernard Herrmann bio a few years back. Smith looks behind batons to how scores for King Kong, Gone With The Wind, Now, Voyager, and Casablanca emerged. Much stuff here I never knew. Steiner loved his work and it showed. He wasn’t paid a fraction of what he was worth, and a rapacious industry took advantage of him. Why are the truly gifted so often the least rewarded? Maybe they care too much, exploited as are so many laborers of love. Steiner got satisfaction in greatness he achieved. Steven Smith tells how the Maestro stood sleepless days and nights toward completion of score jobs due now … as in right now … we open in a week … that sort of pressure. Max lost chunks of health along the way, beginning with sight failing thanks to stress. There were family problems, myriad of that, plus never enough money, part due to bad habits of Steiner’s own, but how does a man who sleeps eighteen hours over six days keep proper stewardship over finances? Everyone from Selznick to Wallis to infamous Jack L. leaned on Max. Did they realize he was the reason their pictures turned out so well? I suspect so. Did they resent Steiner a little for so consistently saving their bacon? My guess is yes.

Smith got interviews and archival material that no one else has seen or accessed. You wouldn’t think a film composer’s life would be stuff of high drama, but here it is, in bushels, and what a read --- all I needed was one of my old Steiner cassettes, Saratoga Trunk perhaps, playing for background (remember when super-fan Albert K. Bender sold these via his Max Steiner Society?). Hard times admittedly for Max, but wait, there’s a big lift for third act triumph of his Summer Place theme, so Max got to finish in the money, with accolades a-plenty from fans who searched him out as teens (ace conductor/arranger John Morgan, responsible for so many Steiner CD releases). Others have kept lamps lit … James D’Arc of BYU preservation fame, curating Max’s archive and acetate recordings, the endlessly creative Ray Faiola, releasing numerous and carefully remastered Steiner scores. Dedicated work of these is ideal accompany to Music By Max Steiner, a must-read for anyone fascinated by this greatest of film-music creators.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Excellent Book Alert

Scoundrels & Spitballers Is a Reading Must

A test of any book might be, how voracious is your reading of it? Mine for Scoundrels & Spitballers, new from Black Pool Productions, was such to cover all of 370 pages in two days, no skimming, skipping, or speed-through. I go close and slow when a thing is good, not wanting the best of books to end, and sorry when they do. Portions of this were so funny, I had to set it down to recover from laughing, author Philippe Garnier's a same kind of wit as story tellers he celebrates. Scoundrels & Spitballers, about second-tier writers of Classic Era Hollywood, is sort you want to get thicker as you go, like scroll down an online page that never stops feeding. Garnier spoke with most of his subjects years ago while they still among us. Others were longer gone, but recalled well by survivors. Names like John Bright, Rowland Brown, Horace McCoy were behind pictures we admire, yet we know little of those who conceived them, so here is chance to fix that, and understand better what the creative process was like before directors were assigned and shooting got underway. Those most knowing will tell us a good show was clenched soon as its basic yarn was spun, ones done by a John Bright (The Public Enemy), or A.I. Bezzerides (They Drive By Night), enabling bows by others who merely followed their lead. Someone had to come up the big idea, Scoundrels & Spitballers proposing, correctly, I think, that those someones were the writers. Remember Public Enemy’s grapefruit? Everyone from WB’s washroom attendant down claimed inspiration for it, but there the thing was, all along, in Beer and Blood, novel from which the film was adapted. Nathaniel West, Marguerite Roberts, W.R. Burnett, each and more get (over)due recognition in Scoundrels & Spitballers, even as we wish it had come sooner for them to know how much their work meant (still means) to us. But then reward, they say, comes in the doing where best writers are concerned, so maybe prize was mere knowing you were the guy who dreamed up the grapefruit, even as others gorged on it. And money was good, 30’s film writing in other ways a hard luck craft, extent to which I but lightly understood before now. Too many scribes were badly used, taken gross advantage of, having what fun they could of life before a next anvil fell. They drank to excess, imprudently at the least, quitting assignments, cussing out, or assaulting, supervisors. They’d marry not wisely, but sometimes well. Surprising how many tied on to heiresses, or socialites with cash. These men had survival instinct to go with story skill. Marrying for love was for chumps it seems. Clever concepts was their coin of the realm. A career could launch from one fresh idea, even if none so promising came again. Too many regarded themselves hacks, whores, sellouts, result conduct hurtful more to themselves than those they hurt, which numbered plenty. Few finished comfortably. But these aren’t necessarily sad stories, for like free thinkers anywhere that follow their own star, writers did what they chose with lives they’d let no one live for them. Theirs was creative work even as it was inscribed on sand. They’d be surprised when anyone sought them out, having come of a time when status was had only between covers or adapted to a stage. Movies paid more, just not enough for honor lost in writing them. But guess what … the best movies survive better than so-called best plays, or even literature, from down trod 30’s, and unsung subjects of Scoundrels & Spitballers wrote them. Here’s where we can understand and applaud them at last.

NOTE: Scoundrels & Spitballers is not available from Amazon. Get it instead, and direct, from Black Pool Productions. I ordered from them, and received the book pronto. Black Pool is Eddie Muller's publishing company. He offers several new books on noir topics that look good.   

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Fox Flinches At Naming Their Target

It's A 1941 Man Hunt --- But What Man?

Big-game hunter Walter Pidgeon has a clear shot at, and could pull a trigger on, Adolf Hitler, thereby ending all our troubles, but he's a sporting man, and won't kill unless well prodded, which he'll adequately be by a finish of this pulse-pounder directed by Fritz Lang. The message of Man Hunt rings clear: this will be no war for clean sportsmen. If we want Hitler and his bunch, it'll be necessary to play by their utter lack of rules. Man Hunt was another wave crashing upon isolationism (released June '41) with warning unmistakable that a fight was coming to our shores lest we head it off. Pidgeon is an Englishman least safe on home ground, a scary prospect for those watching who imagined solace could be had for crossing out of Germany. Fox meant to close margins of doubt as to whether we should enter this war. Surely anyone watching Man Hunt knew it was but a matter of time, as in short months.

A lot is fanciful; you'd think Axis agents quietly controlled Britain from the inside, and I can imagine Man Hunt making a lot of UK folk figure every neighbor a spy, but intervention's message was an urgent one, and yes, Hollywood's call to arms was unabashed. Man Hunt would embark George Sanders and John Carradine, plus minor others, upon service to the Reich. Both would double their workloads essaying Axis heavies. Walter Pidgeon escaped support and B-leads to represent resilience we'd all aspire to through long haul of the conflict; he was one actor who'd gain tremendously thanks to a world war. London streets became black pools under Lang's baton, as does sinister underground train service where sudden death comes of slightest misstep. Man Hunt is mostly chase and suspense but for Joan Bennett as sacrificial lamb for freedom. She's the "mere child" who helps Pidgeon, theirs a romance more effective for being subdued.

20th Fox did not mention Adolf Hitler through the whole of its Man Hunt pressbook. It is stated that big game hunter Walter Pidgeon is stalking "the most hated man on earth" (publicity at top) but no photos or art identify Hitler. Suggested ads are also no tip-off, all having been prepared prior to the film's mid-1941 release, and months before Germany declared war on the United States. Fox naming Hitler as Man Hunt hero's quarry would certainly have played them into the hands of Senate investigators looking to link Hollywood with intervention efforts. The Hitler theme had to be played way down at least until showmen got hold of Man Hunt and applied their own energies to what by now was a country much closer to war and eager to take gloves off. I can visualize Fox territory reps and field men spreading ways to push the Hitler gag and juice up patron bloodlust. Grassroots bally through summer and into fall 1941 made explicit the desire of millions to see Hitler done in by whatever means necessary. Lobby shooting galleries went up far/wide to give customers a chance to take their own shot at the Fuhrer, this still ahead of war's start. We can analyze Man Hunt till cows come home and have no idea of impact it had when rifles (even if play) were issued at entrance doors and radios live-broadcast Roosevelt speeches just inside. Exhibitors, at least go-getter ones, knew the temper of their crowd, and how to exploit it. Man Hunt was rawest meat thrown to this school of salesmanship. Mere shadow of that experience may be had various places with HD streaming, and Man Hunt is available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Two Weeks More Bad Than Beautiful?

Minnelli Tries a Spaghetti Melodrama

A truly cheerless and unhappy film, reflecting bitter awareness that old Hollywood was dead and not coming back. Two Weeks being a movie about movies, we know writing and direction will air grievance toward an industry that once fed well, but will not again. Joseph Mankiewicz spoke his peace similarly in The Barefoot Contessa some years before, only to step off the soapbox and find no one caring (Contessa lost money), and true to form, Two Weeks stayed short in theatres willing to play it at all (final loss a horrific $3.3 million). So what?, said most where pampered film stars/directors were concerned, a question glowing red in account books since movies began. You'd not profit with moviemaking as topic lest you made fun with it. Vincente Minnelli treats Hollywood like tragedy in transit to worse place that was Rome, where integrity gives way to "peddlers" who don't appreciate high standards US artisans maintain.

There were plenty in 1962 to dispute Minnelli's implication that Euro pix were money-driven junk. This, however, was the trend for film that would exclude studio men, of whom Minnelli and tinseled peers were typical (Billy Wilder, for example, always had snide words for off-shore art stuff). There is business in a projection room where Kirk Douglas and others washed out of H’wood look at The Bad and The Beautiful, exalted for greatness achieved ten years before when movies meant more. It's a sad scene for Two Weeks’ crew knowing their show wouldn't turn out so polished as the 1952 in-house melodrama done under Culver control. Further evidence of changed times and Minnelli not changing was re-staging of set pieces that drew notice to The Bad and The Beautiful, instance one an over-top car drive where Douglas and Cyd Charisse make Lana Turner fits of yore look like gentle mews. In the older show it worked, melodrama an accepted enough form of expression for Minnelli to crank up and still be effective, but by 1962 and excess of Two Weeks' reprise, it just looked strange.

There is an "orgy" Minnelli stages to go La Dolce Vita one better, but Two Weeks In Another Town had to wade through Code thicket to American release, so the portion is sliced and unappetizing. US films would need a few more years to shed inhibition and run even with Euro decadence. Two Weeks In Another Town was meant to reunite the creative team from The Bad and The Beautiful, getting cracked mirror result, as pointed out then and since. Years ago, I counted Two Weeks among favorites, but this time it played heavy. One’s own changing views of life should, I suppose, be factored into movie visits that are far apart. Two Weeks situations and dialogue are harsh and not a little cruel. It's said writer Charles Schnee used this for occasion to vent over bitter harvest from his own spent marriage. The Claire Trevor character is a shrieking ball-and-chain from presumed purgatory that was either Schnee's or most/all long-term biz marriages. By comparison, the Italians seem well-adjusted in their stereotyped jabber and face-slaps. To that representation, Two Weeks In Another Town must have seemed provincial to Euros seeing themselves portrayed as virtual cartoons (no more absurd instance of this than Rosanna Schiaffino as a no-talent firebrand of an Italian "actress").

Kirk Douglas is the comeback-seeking "washed up ham," and you wonder if KD deliberately played his guy as just that, the perf Gorshinesque at times. There is compliant earth-woman Daliah Lavi for Douglas to simpatico with, she the sort any damaged American could find solace in, pure male fantasy not common for a Minnelli film. Their relationship plays as unbelievably as the movie being made in Another Town. Edward G. Robinson's may be the best performance as a harried, and ultimately disloyal, director. He has to raise pitch, however, to overstated level of his co-stars, which makes for shrill exchange with Trevor, Douglas, George Hamilton, virtually everyone there for the Two Weeks.

The one element of the 1962 film not to suffer in comparison to The Bad and The Beautiful was David Raksin's score, the equal of any of this great composer's work, and happily available on CD. It's not fair being harsh on Two Weeks In Another Town for what Metro did in mutilating the film as submitted by Vincente Minnelli and producer John Houseman. Script problems the creative team was aware of from a beginning keeps Two Weeks from being any ruined masterpiece, but what might have been sounds better than what we got, based on footage known to have been dropped. I guess the only reassurance for having been involved was knowing it would be forgotten quickly or paved over by a next success, or repeated flop (like Mutiny On The Bounty three months later for MGM). Two Weeks In Another Town went to television, looked awful there thanks to cropping of its scope image, and to boot had no network primetime run, a reminder of how theatregoers rejected it. Now comes Blu-Ray to a rescue, and from that advantage, the picture looks and plays better than it has since being new.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Want Ads For Those Who Want Free Admission

Shea's Buffalo Invites Betty Clark To Invite Her Friends

You might on one hand call bally like this a forfeiture of privacy, or better put, Shea Buffalo management wresting privacy away from "guests" whose names will appear among want ads in the local newspaper. I'm guessing Betty Clark submitted ten of friends to the theatre and each got a pair of tickets provided they spotted themselves in print. Question arises: What of those who don't enjoy being publicly exposed? It's an issue that is still relevant, for what is Facebook but a most epic invasion of privacy since Rome marched on Carthage? Betty's guests evidently had to drop by the Times' office to claim free ducats, and maybe get a hard sell to subscribe while there. There were always schemes at work between theatres and brother merchants. Any price for this program would have been a bargain, of course. Not only the feature, but "Hollywood's Own Monte Blue," a star by 1932 no longer a star, but who would remain Hollywood's Own to extent of small parts he'd have right up to the sixties, and his seventies. The town often did take care of its discarded, knowing an actor like Blue could rise to dramatic occasion even if no longer a celebrated lead man as in silents long past (he is fine, for instance, in 1948's Key Largo).
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