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Thursday, August 27, 2020

When Disney Said Eat Your Spinach

Fantasia Chases Rocky Road that Was "Good" Music

Do any two people, anywhere, listen to music the same? Means by which we hear it are infinite, preference as to how or when more so. Some listen alone, others in a crowd. There are those who loved music all their lives and never went to a concert, never cared to. So how did Fantasia presume to reach a mass audience and convert them to the classics? Walt Disney said it could be done and went down trying (negative cost: $2.3 million, says WD biographer Michael Barrier). Disney and associates imagined we might receive our music enrichment in a uniform way, even as reality suggests otherwise. Ask multitudes who tried: Classics for the masses never worked, chances less that they ever will. A book called Highbrow/Lowbrow, by Lawrence W. Levine, told of men in the nineteenth century who made the attempt. Theodore Thomas, who had a world class orchestra, toured the country with it. He tried to establish a Chicago Symphony, was met by “the indifference of the mass of the people to the higher forms of music.” Thomas would admit, after years trying, that few were “sufficiently advanced intellectually” to appreciate his kind of repertoire. Classical performance belonged to an elite after all (query: Is that now true of classic movies as well?), best success for music out of grab-bags, anything goes selection-wise. Choice could jump from Beethoven to minstrel tunes, snatches of Liszt ceding to patriotic marches or a pop ditty called The Railway Galop, where “a little mock steam engine kept scooting about … on the floor of the hall, with black cotton wool smoke coming out of the funnel.” For smart promoters, so-called classics were one more resource to draw from for an evening’s entertainment, no more venerated than Turkey In The Straw.

So wait --- hadn't this been Disney’s approach up to quicksand that was Fantasia? The Band Concert is instructive, as in here’s the way to do it, Mickey as conductor trying for uplift as Donald Duck interrupts with, yes, Turkey In The Straw. The Band Concert was a masterpiece in nine minutes, 1935 critics clapping hands raw, hands they’d largely sit on for two plus hours that was Fantasia. Disney had already unlocked the secret for making us enjoy classics, not needing Stokowski, Deems Taylor, or any of consulting conservatories to school him. Did Walt rely on egghead judgment rather than his own? Past Silly Symphonies and most of Mickeys were rife with recognizable themes. We’ve all of us learned more of classical music from cartoons than anyplace else that served it. Disney had been making bite-size Fantasias since sound came in, lemon drops to go down easier than a watermelon sans story, sense, or breath of life that best of cartoons were full of. First Disney short I had in 16mm was Mickey’s Service Station, its score a basis for much repeat viewing to follow. I can still hum the whole seven minutes (themes by Leigh Harline). Did Disney lack confidence in Harline or Frank Churchill, another of crack composers on staff, to let Fantasia be about them?

Disney tried adapting classical music to his purpose and got pilloried for it. One kind critic called Fantasia “a work of promise.” Another, less kind, said it was a “promising monstrosity.” All offered barbs, much I think, to show how cultivated they were, and who did Disney think he was, trimming symphonies to measure of dancing hippos? Seems the latest minted genius had fallen in the same trap as geniuses that went before, Griffith with Intolerance, Chaplin and Modern Times. Read contemporary reviews of those and wonder why the two even kept trying. Did Disney need a trim after Snow White? Humbling is first thing on a menu for any popular artist who becomes too popular. Walt could have lunched with Frank Capra on that topic, Lost Horizon and Fantasia topics A and B. Disney got to where he had to top himself each time out. At point of realizing folly in that, the money ran out. He built a new studio with Snow White profits … air-conditioned, milkshakes brought up whenever staff got hungry or felt lazy. They would thank him by going on strike and nearly wrecking the joint. Fantasia started out as one modest thing and ended up another Intolerance, or Lost Horizon, or whatever filmmakers do when too puffed up. Initial idea was to make a deluxe Mickey based on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, clever if apace with well-received Popeye specials (Sindbad, Ali Baba, etc.), but Disney had misfortune to run into Leopold Stokowski at Chasen’s Restaurant in 1938, balloons inflated from there to pop-point.

Certain Silly Symphonies sort of warned there would be a Fantasia. The Old Mill was experimental, still-life beside rival cartoons, determined to be something different from what animation had been up to then, an announcement that art was achievable off drawing boards. Sillies had gone far as they could, were anything but silly anymore. The series was spent by the time Fantasia got loose, itself a definitive statement of philosophy the SS series had come to embrace. “Funny” cartoons at Disney were now the outliers, Pinocchio, plus Bambi in development, adopting a same drama-as-overlay to humorFantasia was in a way inevitable. Someone would surely head that direction eventually, but why exhaust patience with lending institutes to do it? (it was after Fantasia that Bank of America dialed back spigot to Disney) Classical music as backdrop to an animated feature was anything but a sure thing, and yet there was hint, if faint, of a wider public seeking to be enriched. Two-hour radio recitals earlier in the 30’s surprised NBC for warm reception they got. Stokowski had become a longhair star and momentary darling of movies as object of Deanna Durbin pursuit (she wants him to conduct her). Not altogether daft to think great music could/might connect with at least enough public to break even, but Fantasia, much as it now cost, had to do better than even Snow White to achieve that.

Fantasia’s opening was built to intimidate, as wrong-head an intro as serious music ever got from movies. We are five minutes at least getting the orchestra seated, then comes Deems Taylor as headmaster with everything but a switch for bad lads not listening, all grimly lit like Mario Bava arrived early with Wurdalaks. For me seeing Fantasia first in the mid-seventies, it was like Get Out Now While You Can. No matter the respect conveyed, critics were insistent on a barbecue. To praise Fantasia was to admit incipient philistinism. First off, the rejiggering of music. Here, for extreme instance, was highest falutin’ pan re Disney’s rendition of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, which to The Nation’s B.H. Haggin’s mind, “did not even remotely represent the substance and organic development and structured complexity of Bach’s music or exert anything remotely comparable with the power of the music’s formal eloquence.” Play Beethoven intact or not at all, many said, Disney knowing that had he done that, there would be no one else on the program but Beethoven. Someone who should have known better announced that Fantasia would have us “seeing music and hearing pictures,” to which modern vulgarism WTF might ideally apply. Reviewers wanted to show off taste elevated past Disney and his cartoonists. Latter had less celebrated Great Music than profaned it. So far as animators whose “imaginations were applied” to classical themes, it would take a Michelangelo to do that proper justice. Disney wanted to rescue music from ingrained snobbery, and instead got buried in it by a critical establishment the biggest snobs of all. Enough to make even a genius like Walt retreat back to Steamboat Willie drawing boards.

There was further innovation, also underappreciated, “Fantasound” a would-be engulfing sound process way ahead, as in too ahead, of its time. Thirteen venues wired up at great expense, not as though they could use Fantasound for future product, so any loss was dead loss so far as equipment went. Otis Ferguson, more mercifully inclined toward Fantasia than most (if referring to it as “hollow fakery” is a kindness), questioned if Fantasound was worth the “cumbersomeness,” which for all of sound coming “from everywhere,” was “still mechanical in effect.” Fantasound may actually have done more to emphasize the absence of a live orchestra than to suggest presence of one. Word spread that Fantasia told no story, except briefly when Mickey Mouse came round, so the very mass Walt sought stayed away. Spoofs had to come, and would, with a vengeance. Other cartoon shops particularly had fun at Disney expense. Warners addressed classics with all tongues in cheek, Bugs, Elmer, the lot. Tom and Jerry disrupted one another at concertos. Ridicule seemed a forever thing, to thrive for long after Fantasia itself went into hibernation.

Fantasia came back in 1946 to $535K in worldwide rentals, a help toward making up initial loss, even as marketing, prints, distribution ate up much of that. 1951 was another try, $110K in domestic rentals this time. Would audiences change even if Fantasia did not? Disney hoped so, and aimed mid-50’s dates at “Bopsters, Longhairs, Hi-Fi Addicts, and Juke-Box Fans,” not a bad scattershot, for such splinters did emerge from mainstream viewership, or more accurately, a listening public, few knowing Fantasia for anything other than having come and gone years before. Fantasound was sold as full stereo now (1956), none I'm aware of calling foul. Disney made bite servings of it for TV and outreach to schools. I had twenty minutes of 16mm dinosaurs called A World Is Born, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice finally went out as the glorified Mickey Mouse it always was. Fantasia seemed by now in perpetual release, fresh paper prepared in 1958, 1963, 1970, whenever spirits moved Buena Vista marketers. A perhaps cynical serve was to hippie niche that might take Fantasia to hearts, if not addled minds. At least here was first occasion for exhibitors to worry about rogue substances being snuck into a Disney screening. Fantasia seemed always available to theatres ready to roll dice, an art film the whole family could avoid. A few of us drove from college to Charlotte in 1974 for an empty matinee. I kept praying each segment would be the last. Disney later tried putting new stuff with the old stuff for an update. I’ve no idea if that did more good than harm, or harm than good.

Best not to second guess artists, particularly those who did their art eighty years ago, and who am I to propose a better idea than Disney had, but … here goes. To have made Fantasia right, at least right to my reckoning, would not involve classical music at all, celebrating instead late 30’s-and-into-40’s locomotive that was jazz at its popular peak, specifically swing, that summit attained by the new form which everyone danced to and jammed theatres to hear. No stuffy Deems Taylor, tut-tutting his musicians when they dare improvise a spritely tempo (a moment to best illustrate why Fantasia was a fundamentally wrong idea). The Fantasia done right would bring wide mosaic of musicians to the fore, each hosting segments, or better, doing distinctive stuff w/o resort to intros or set-ups, their sounds speaking for themselves. Swing had well-achieved status by 1940 --- think of Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall in 1938. Imagine him and a dozen other headliners combined with Disney cartoon favorites, a songbook to really let loose animators ideally age appropriate to interpret fresh forms of music. Let first-run theatres bring in a name band to open live, changing the bill throughout extended engagements. Allow kids to dance in the aisles if so moved (a coming rock-and-roll era would usher that in). Include Latin sounds starting to get a US foothold, a head start on Saludos/Caballeros that Disney introduced a few years later. From this could emerge a critic-proof Fantasia, for with music so modern and wide-appealing, who’d pay attention to critics? Here then is the Fantasia of my dreams, a time capsule to open again and again, if only Walt Disney had run into Benny Goodman that fateful day at Chasen’s instead of Leopold Stokowski.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

No Time To Push a Downer Button

Street Scene Ushers In a Realist Trend For Stage Drama

Yes, Bert ... But Is It Pleasant?

A Mature George M. Cohan Back on Broadway
George M. Cohan was walking in Central Park and encountered an actor friend, Bert Lytell. Bert was high on a new Broadway play, Street Scene, by Elmer Rice. Best thing he had seen in years, to which Cohan replied, “Yes, Bert, but is it pleasant?” Cohan said Lytell didn’t get his question. “I guess people don’t understand me anymore, and I don’t understand them,” figured George M. as the two parted. Street Scene was a “realist” drama, staged first in 1929 and staying for 601 performances on Broadway. Dealing in despair among NY tenement dwellers, it was pure opposite to everything Cohan stood for by way of entertainment. “It’s getting to be too much for me, kid,” this from a man but in his early fifties when Street Scene and plays like it wrote finis to the Broadway Cohan knew, had in many ways invented. What strikes me of his reverie is that word “pleasant” --- is it pleasant? --- because here is what I ask myself before any-all unspool at Greenbriar. Who needs unpleasant, especially in stress time? Harpo once, and perceptively, said, “If it isn’t comedy, I fall asleep.” Could that be what kept him the cheeriest of Marx Brothers?

Remember The Day On The Road
Toward quest for a pleasant theatre-going experience, George M. Cohan saw a play called Remember The Day in 1935. He had lately enjoyed late-career triumph in Ah, Wilderness!, and afterward a revival of beloved Seven Keys To Baldpate, which he first adapted and starred in back in 1913. Remember The Day was sentimental recall to that era when Cohan was a boy. Its lead character was a schoolteacher whose pupil has a crush on her and is desolated to realize she loves the athletic coach. Twentieth-Fox told the story in 1941, Americana as realized by director Henry King and starring Claudette Colbert. The play had not been an inordinate success, but what it had was something George M. Cohan responded intensely to, as evidenced by his attending over and over. Cohan wrote a glowing boost and encouraged the play producers to use it with their advertising. He wanted everyone to admire this “beacon in a darkening world.” Cohan "lived every word of it. It was my play.” He felt that scribes Philo Highley and Philip Dunning had written Remember The Day just for him. How often, if ever, are any of us so touched by a play or film we have seen? Men of a certain age can be moved where a story transports them back. Are women as susceptible? I’ve adored Remember The Day since syndicated day of the 70’s, even if I never had a teacher so belovable as Claudette Colbert’s “Miss Trinell.” The Happy Years, for its fond recall of prep school shortly after a century’s turn, was meaningful for many. A later generation had American Graffiti and Animal House to transport them back. I’d call anyone lucky who has even one film they could truly call their own, “made just for me.” Many are movies I can live in for their length, but sadly none (so far) upon which to lay such personal claim.

To Cohan’s resolve that entertainment be “pleasant,” in fact his insistence upon it as he grew older, I more and more concur. Where life is fraught, as for many it presently is, who wants to push a downer button where selecting a show? Criterion yesterday announced The Irishman for Blu-Ray. I admired The Irishman, got through its three and a half hours of gloom, but that was nine or so months ago, and things are very different now (talk about fond reminiscence --- there are twelve-year-olds who will look longingly back to carefree days of 2019). Toward preserve of mental health, I now graze among westerns, costume folderol, and careful-vetted noir. To that add melodrama against exotic setting. Over a last two weeks then … two with Joel McCrea … Notice how others around him act, while McCrea just is. Name a player who performs with more conviction, especially upon a horse. Four Faces West is him at a summit, a western where no shot is fired (noted for that), nor fist thrown. Really good, as is Cattle Drive, where brat kid Dean Stockwell learns manly arts from Joel and roughhewn drovers. High among therapists I recommend is Joel McCrea. And Randolph Scott. Then early Hoppys. I have wondered if youth that grew up on westerns had it more together than we do. Now I am satisfied … yes they did, and do.

Also came Arabian Nights and Son of Ali Baba. These are what the greatest generation had between cowboys. Both please for reasons beyond narrative or pace, for each has faces we like to see do things we expect of them. Tony Curtis is Ali-Ali Offspring and Piper Laurie is the slave girl actually a princess. Hopeful contractees sniff around borders. It occurs to me that Hugh O’Brian was almost always mean, because, let’s face it, he had a mean face. Hugh was lucky to ultimately be Wyatt Earp. Arabian Nights was Universal’s first feature in Technicolor and opening round on Maria Montez with Jon Hall. Turhan Bey is also here. There is something always welcome about Turhan Bey. Lana Turner thought so. Shemp Howard plays Sinbad as if in modern day, an inspiration. Uni got so casual about these slipper-with-bell shows that by the late 40’s, even the camels talked. Maybe those will be along soon if Kino does well with Arabian Nights. Double-featured several nights ago was Appointment In Honduras and Escape From Burma, both jungly and with snakes plus tigers that eat bad men. Glenn Ford several times points out “devil fish” that will strip good or bad men clean of flesh, and I wondered if these were the same as piranhas that fed on Karin Dor in You Only Live Twice ("Bon Appetit," says 007). Appointment In Honduras has a cast up to necks in fetid water. Wonder how many got part way through work so grubby to regret taking the job. I might have gone over a hill in the face of such ordeal. Jacques Tourneur directed Appointment In Honduras. I have not yet seen a bad picture by him. Well, not truly bad (even War Gods Of the Deep has adherents, if not many). I thought the other title was Escape From Burma, but it turns out to be Escape To Burma, which suggests people in this movie don’t know if they’re coming or going, and frankly, neither did I. But fun is in the getting there. Benedict Bogeaus produced Honduras and Burma. I suspect he and the casts went to neither place. Occasion where great actors like Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, Glenn Ford, and Ann Sheridan really show their greatness is in stuff like these. They knew it too, and we should revere them for it. There is a DVD combo of Honduras/Burma from VCI. Such and others aforementioned will cure what ails you, being all for comfort and decidedly pleasant as I’m sure Yankee Doodle Cohan would agree.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Another Monster I Know and Love

Where Greenbriar Argues For a Horror Movie as Art

Long past time to put aside notions of film as secondary, if that, to other performing arts. That would reverse lifetimes of snubbery, which makes the gesture all a more worth making. Writers/appreciators of film as art stood up for it from a start, Frank Woods since Nickelodeons came, Otis Ferguson a voice in 1940 wilderness (his essay, Life Goes To The Pictures, a classic). I’ll renew the argument, then, on behalf of Mystery of the Wax Museum, a 1933 release lately, and beautifully, rendered on Blu-Ray. I checked what was hot on Broadway stages during that vintage year. “Major events,” according to Daniel Blum’s A Pictorial History Of The American Theatre, were One Sunday Afternoon, Ah, Wilderness!, Maxwell Anderson’s Both Your Houses, and Men In White. Tobacco Road had begun a phenomenal run. Now then, how many of these are revived today? Consider other, more sedentary, arts. I recent read the A. Scott Berg biography of legendary book editor Maxwell Perkins. Seems work by even authors still held in reverence, certainly over anyone who wrote for movies, had their duds, copies selling in four figures where lucky. Won’t labor the point, but do submit that a Mystery of the Wax Museum belongs high on a list of lasting works, as what else from 1933 sustains so well, especially with UCLA Archive having rescued it from deep well of near-ninety years, a Dead Sea scroll of a movie we but faintly knew till now.

For decades, Wax was figured lost, all quest to see it hopeless. Add to that fifty more years (following 1970 surface of a single print), of not seeing it proper. Customary reasons were lousy lab work, corporate indifference … corporate unawareness, in fact, of treasure they had. Now Mystery of the Wax Museum is everyone’s gift from UCLA Archive and Warners. I lately looked at some You Tubes re archeological finds of ancient New Testament manuscripts, goal being to locate earliest survivors and get close as possible to “original” Gospel text. All this brought to mind ongoing struggle of film preservationists, for without first generation elements to derive from, there is no old movie for us to rediscover and enjoy. Lots are lost, Mystery of the Wax Museum intact only by skin of teeth, or nitrate celluloid, two prints in varied state of raggedness, plus some fragments, from which to derive what we may now own for eighteen or less dollars. Biblical scholars actually have more (comparatively) early New Testament drafts to work from (thousands located so far, it’s said) than Wax leavings for UCLA to consult. Judging by Archive result, you’d not dream it came of such distressed remains, for Mystery of the Wax Museum looks, at least to me, as though it was minted yesterday.

Will this Grand Museum reopening generate a same excitement as when brought from hiding in the early 70’s? Based on delays meeting Blu-Ray demand, I would say it has, and then some. Let Dan Mercer tell of first-time Wake Forest screening for Halloween 1973 that was no mere movie-go --- for us both, this was a pilgrimage (patience ... we'll hear from Dan). Was it years’ wait and longing that made final consummation so meaningful? Two-hour drive, hard back chairs, a tepid Eastman print … these didn’t matter. Ease of access today makes it all a bit comical, the stuff of rose-tint memory. Imagine if Casper Gutman and associates could two-day Air their gold-encrusted Falcon from Amazon prime. The movie chase has become so easy that it is no longer a chase at all. Yet how far would any of us walk, crawl, traverse acres of barbed wire, to see London After Midnight, Hats Off, or The Magnificent Ambersons complete? Back in the day, we had to work for our fun, says this old man who tries not living in the past any more than he must.

Is Mystery of the Wax Museum being commercial product what keeps press and a cultural community from standing up to say, This is a very big deal! --- ? What Wax needs is a totem, opinion maker, leading flocks to wonder at this Museum, but are there such voices of cultural authority left? Plenty online, would-be’s by definition because there are so many and who bothers about online writing, but mainstream arbiters seem gone, the kind who could speak from outside our tribe to say, This you all must see. The Is It Art question can be answered straightaway, a dictionary’s definition more than apt where applied to result got by Mystery of the Wax Museum: “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Art’s criteria is more than Wax-met. There is a spell cast by the best films, sort of what I suppose a painting can do, though I’m not so moved by those as images that move, in present case, otherworldly figures to begin with (early 30’s setting, slang, modern if still gothic chilling) to which add color not of this earth, or at the least our time on earth, which for me is how UCLA’s hypo achieves a 2020 state of grace.

Is it unreasonable to imagine that people and clothes and cars of 1933 existed only within limited palette that was two-color Technicolor? I can believe it, and want to believe it. You may persuade me, easily, that fullest color, the kind we know today, was not realized in still photos, movies, or life, until the mid-thirties. Till then was variation on red or green, flesh rendered pink … chartreuse, maybe lime, for skies. Was this a world our forebears knew? Someone please go back in time and let me know if two-color was all folks had in 1933, not just in theatres but out on the street. Receipt of color when I began collecting 16mm was set always on startle, as in no experience ever like these. Senses are heightened when you are young, impressions manifold over what we’d experience again. My print of Adventures of Robin Hood had reds and blues to fairly leap off the wall. Never realized at age twenty that such a vision would not come again. Was it eyes open and receptive to miracles … closed now for losing what had been vividest sight? If so, that loss is restored by UCLA’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. They did not make the fool’s blunder of “correcting” color, an easy out thanks to technology now amok to undo work done by our ancestral betters. Authentic beats pretty every time. I do not want to see Lionel Atwill scooting along before a blue wall.

Truth is, critics of the day disparaged the two-color process, said it was work still in progress and had long ways to go. Trade reviewers wondered how that might affect boxoffice. Scamp-like Rob Wagner, whose publication was Rob Wagner’s Script, gave vent to all aspect of his filmgoing … the movie, its audience, promotions outside. As there was no protocol where it came to evaluating films, Rob could be whatever flavor of iconoclast he chose, nobody caring, for since when were movies a thing to be taken seriously? In case “horrors pall,” he said of Mystery of the Wax Museum, “ … get a load of Glenda Farrell … Glenda is a jolly lass with thick lips, beautiful eyes, a charming lisp, and a smile that would melt a brass monster, let alone a wax one.” To hear trade tell it, we laughed going in, and certainly coming out. Two-color was tide turning by the time Mystery of the Wax Museum arrived. Serious critics to ponder movies, not so many in 1933, admonished the thing or ignored it. Pare Lorentz, whose reviews still resonate, called Wax a “latest boo epic … ghostly, severely cold in design,” which it was, still is, and thank providence for that. What they viewed as limitations, however, became enhancement for viewership to come.

Two-color had an abstract quality, again that other-worldliness. Mystery of the Wax Museum as retrieved by UCLA is a triumph of impressionism in movies (not planned as such, or was it?). Hindrance is virtue, so far as I see them, creeps no show then or since could touch (except Doctor X, now in restorative works at UCLA). Horror after all lies in atmosphere, not someone thrust forward with carving instruments. Universal thrilling was remote, Warners the here and now. Post-Crash and Depression themes unease me without adding monsters. Take this hard life or leave it, says all of precode. Can’t stand the guff? --- there’s the gas pipe. Where was sympathy for softness in the early 30’s? Extras on the recent Blu-Ray, and at You Tube, explain how the UCLA restoration team wove their raiment of two colors. I never knew red or green for such infinite variation. Scott MacQueen does a disc commentary detailing Waxen history back to 1933 and efforts to rescue and circulate it since. No one knows this picture like MacQueen, or has done so much to preserve and celebrate it. Greenbriar’s own absorption dates to 2008, pleading then for the digital fix that would wait twelve years. Briefer mention re the rescue came earlier this year (March). At that time, I wondered if two-color should serve yet as an “aesthetic choice.” Painters have been as adventurous, why not filmmakers? (give me twenty million and I promise to make a two-color Technicolor feature).

Thursday, August 06, 2020

18th Century Frolics On 1940 Plates

Jane Austen Gives Us "The Gayest Comedy Hit Of The Season"

Playful to a crowd-pleasing fault, I see easy why this Pride and Prejudice might have clicked, but hold, it did not, for MGM lost $241K in a year when most of what they released saw profit. Compare Pride’s worldwide rentals of $1.8 million with also-’40 Boom Town and its five million. No need asking why New York sales preferred more of the latter to burden of the former, and yet … Pride and Prejudice ran ideally to tastes of Radio City Music Hall, there a stunning four weeks, near-unheard of for the house, and demonstration that what was great for the Hall might not be so across a greater US. Prestige was served as reviews were expectedly good, Metro again congratulated for quality not common to commercial-chasing Hollywood. Pride and Prejudice is just out on Blu-Ray and so plays better than ever, unless you were among 1962 and later audiences who saw it as part of Leo’s “Perpetual Product Plan,” a reissue program of operettas and “World Heritage” features thought evergreen due to literary antecedents and the fact students would come by busload per school tie-ins. I wonder how much, if any, lifelong film crave resulted from ’62 field trips compulsory rather than chose. My own was hone via David Copperfield served enrichment style at a Gastonia matinee in 1969, brand new print and all, which was Metro-customary for these revivals. Jane Austen was less revered then (1940 or 62) than now, if the many recent adapts of her work are evidence, one (2016) pitting Pride and Prejudice characters against a zombie horde, but we’ll pass that.

Character types as cast in Pride and Prejudice go the gamut from Dickensian to down streets from Andy Hardy, a contradiction of faces and style that make this a still edible early eighteenth century-set pudding. All would have been familiar to 1940 viewership, past links to modern, or period costume, then modern again. Enter an Edna May Oliver (b. 1883) who you’d think could not exist in our time, engraved as she seemed upon Copperfield or A Tale of Two Cities when they were first published, or made as movies. As a representative of past centuries, Oliver was unimpeachable. Others could convince after fashion of past century birth and performance tied as much to then as a ’40 now. Melville Cooper (b. 1896), Edmund Gwenn (b. 1877), and E.E. Clive (b. 1883) lend such authenticity. These emerge believably from a Jane Austen world, or Dickens, or anyone that wrote with feathers. What gives Pride and Prejudice variety is players, many necessarily younger and/or bound by formed expectation. I rely upon Mary Boland to play as she had opposite Charlie Ruggles or as busybody support, so am not disappointed, or maybe I am frankly, because it seemed she was more Boland than Mrs. Bennet, and that was risk any casting director ran when using a too entrenched persona asked suddenly to modify the act, even if subtly. Boland wasn’t likely to do that, and it may not have been fair to expect her to.

The five Bennet sisters are necessarily young, so if MGM ingenues play them, they will register current, at least more so than seemingly genuine articles, like Edna May, et al, off a historical shelf. Costumes however lavish could carry the early 1800’s illusion only so far where “Polly Benedict” of the Andy Hardy series is wearing them. Maureen O’Sullivan has the primary sister role behind Greer Garson, her qualification earned for acting, and adequately, in period before, alongside Garbo, George Arliss, others that cracked earlier-era code. Simulating a past was not a thing to come natural, some of strongest latter-day personalities lost utterly where calendars turned way back on them. Applaud then fitness of Greer Garson for such commission as “Elizabeth Bennet,” plus Laurence Olivier, who seemed in initial movies better suited to remote periods, even as he was said to disdain the “Darcy” part. Garson was precisely a right actress at exactly the right time. From here through the war, the Music Hall would not have a more reliable draw. Everything they played with her crushed records. Hard to fathom now with Garson so forgotten, and audiences disinclined to enjoy her. TCM should do a month for stars enormous in their brief day and barely footnotes since. Names besides Garson? I’ll leave those for readers to suggest.

Jane Austen’s novel was perhaps more “famous” than read in the mid-30’s, so Metro bought a play adapted from it that was lately successful on Broadway. “Chuckling” crowds made comedy a best way in, and yes, Austen gave that, but updating would need laughs the more-so, hence promised instruct on “how pretty girls t-e-a-s-e-d men into marriage!” Pride and Prejudice had to be everybody’s Austen to have a chance, and “Filmed In The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Manner,” which meant plenty to those who envisioned movie night out as at least a four course meal. Pride and Prejudice is best taken in a spirit of fun, serious matters but touched lightly with crises as quickly averted as they are introduced. This all was cater to what a 1940 audience was presumed to want --- in fact, I think it was only on such terms they’d suffer such content at all, and even then Pride and Prejudice failed, so down went Austen as screen source for decades to come. Did Metro wish in hindsight they had set Pride and Prejudice in modern times? The set-up would serve, endlessly, for them and others --- unwed daughters, harried parents, appropriate or not suitors. Maybe Pride and Prejudice was worth doing just to get that mousetrap built.
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