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Sunday, January 31, 2021

Back In a Cartoon Barrel

Still Animates Us After All These Years

Ask yourself frankly if there is anyone you have hated for the last fifty years. I mean hated. More of that later. We’ve heard the expression, Get Over Yourself. Time I took it to heart and stop thinking cartoons began with me in pajamas watching them hours at a turn. To better understand reality of six-seven minutes, a cartoon as “Novelty” portion of a balanced show, I called again upon Conrad Lane, who saw animation when it was a novelty, from the mid-thirties, right through the fifties, black-and-white to color, bad shorts to good, good ones to bad. He put me straight to how cartoons were received … perceived … by himself and friends who saw them brand new, a thing few of us here can claim. Bugs Bunny, Popeye, and Donald Duck were made for Conrad ... and we got Wally Gator, or worse. I don’t deserve to breathe his air, let alone know progress of cartoons as he does. We talked at length of what it was like seeing Warner shields zoom forward to full seating. What was the effect? Conrad says cheers, often as not surprise, because ads where he lived did not specify shorts that went with features … it was whatever movie, plus “News and Novelty.” Latter could be anything, a sport reel, the Three Stooges (huge whoops on sight of them, Conrad recalls), or … a cartoon.


And yes, it mattered whose cartoon. Disney was tops until Warners went to color, then theirs led. On the other hand, when Popeye took on color, he stopped being funny. Fox cartoons were punk, says Conrad, no one applauding their brand. All shrank in the face of Bugs Bunny, him the character Conrad and crew liked best, and imitated on walks home from a show. Another from WB that lit them up: A Tale Of Two Kitties, with “Babbit and Catstello,” more inspiration for mimicry among kids. I asked Conrad if he or others noticed director names in the credits. He said no. They judged cartoons purely by laugh quotient, with no concern as to who “supervised” them. Hands-down favorite was Bugs. He came with the war and was helping win it, so far as then-crowds were concerned. Every boy, girls too, had their BB impression, some inspired enough by the rabbit to go home and ask Mom for carrots. Conrad could never understand why theatres in his town didn’t promote Bugs to the sky when they had him. Was there not showman awareness of how popular he was? Word-of-mouth spread locally, as in Hey, There’s a New Bugs at the Rivoli! If a cartoon was good enough, Conrad’s bunch would stay and see it twice, ushers not minding because being fans too, they understood.

Here’s oddity he mentioned, re the Disney features. Everyone, but everyone, was over the moon for Snow White, adults included, but by Pinocchio and then Bambi, bloom was off the rose. These were for children, said grown-ups, a sentiment strange to Conrad, for he saw both first-run and found them as magical as Snow White. What had so changed parent impression? He speculated that Gulliver’s Travels, coming between SW and Pinocchio, did damage, being a “very bad” picture and maybe a blight upon notion of seeing more animated features. Conrad noted too the habit of theatres to front-load kid matinees with cartoons served in bunches, a thing to further cheapen them for adults. Remember, these were “Novelties” mature viewership preferred that way. Cartoons fed en masse to television made things worse. Kids watching a dozen or more at a time was unhealthy. Why weren’t they riding bikes or catching tadpoles the way Mom and Dad did? Conrad saw cartoons with his children and remembered many a specific one from theatres long before, but knew the while he was exception to a prevailing rule. Most adults had no such recall, had forgot their once enjoyment of cartoons on paying screens, Bugs Bunny a vague memory that need not be retrieved what with family responsibilities to oversee. Stigma had attached to cartoons. To watch so many was to absorb bad influence. Conrad thinks parents who did occasionally sit for a few from TV were loath to admit it later.

Youth was expected to “grow out” of cartoons. Not all of them did. Rebels were popularly known for donning hippie beads and preaching protest. I say real rebels were those taking cartoons seriously and making pioneer study of them. Think how alone in a who-cares world they were. Patronizing peers who had sat transfixed before home tubes now called them immature. Dedication came with skill to read and write, off-grid youngsters jotting down title and credits every seven minutes as each cartoon filed past them, writing stations to complain of Penguin Parade showing too much, I Love To Singa too little. These insurgents went from hand scrawl to offset, fanzines a route to kindred spirits who had to be out there somewhere. Friend Norman Stuart, later outstanding reviewer of books and video for Film Collector’s World, showed me issues of Funnyworld to which he was a subscriber in the early 70’s, wherein artist/innovators like Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones were interviewed, for a first serious time as it turned out. This was about when I began collecting cartoons, Thunderbird a source for PD legit, darker markets supplying me with Slick Hare, Coal Black, others. Then there were TV stations with hungry enough employees to slip stuff out the back, as who’d miss four or five cartoons where there were hundreds more sitting in racks and ready to show? Seemed unlikely a viewer in 1973 would write a program manager and ask, What the deuce happened to Hollywood Steps Out? Collectors leapt a lot of barriers to get rarities, never imagining a time when virtually all they wanted would be readily available, and at prices far below what they had willingly paid forty to fifty years before.

Growing up, there were only three cartoon makers I knew by sight and name … Walt Disney, Walter Lantz, and Bob Clampett. Lantz sat at his easel and was what folks called “avuncular.” He explained, among other things, what made Woody move. Trouble was, I wasn't so into the Woodpecker once past a dynamic, rat-tat opening. Clampett put his name all over Beany and Cecil, a possessory credit, which no other animator had apart from Disney. Soured was I when Bob took over Matty’s Funday Funnies, Herman/Katnip, Baby Huey shoved off for Beany/Cecil. But Clampett seemed a friendly sort, was himself animated so that each week the Sea Serpent licked his face. I didn’t know until years later that Beany and Cecil began as puppets. In fact, Bob’s career started with puppets. Forward to the 70’s, then: I call 1975 the pivotal year. That’s when 16mm rental houses applied push to their cartoons, even devoting “Parades” to directors like Clampett, Tashlin, Avery. Colleges used them as I meantime unspooled “hot” titles, fewer in number it’s true, but no one complained at endless campus repeats of Bacall To Arms or Coo-Coo Nut Grove. Did my heart good when some cheerleader or football player came up and said, Boy, I’ve always loved these things.

Among initial digs was Film Comment salute (January/February 1975) to “The Hollywood Cartoon,” Chuck Jones interviewed at length, also Michael Maltese and Maurice Noble, contributors too long obscure profiled by Joe Adamson. Latter did a book on Tex Avery that year … a whole book! It remains definitive. Then came Bugs Bunny Superstar, feature-fed Warner cartoons culled from those owned by United Artists, meaning pre-49, but good withal, a thrill on big screens even if quality could not approach what we enjoy today. Word was old cartoons barely existed on 35mm, BBS bringing them back as theatre fare, on-camera Bob Clampett, plus Avery and Friz Freleng, as color commentators. Warners saw success of this and bunched backlog for network specials and feature grab-bags. Thing I didn’t realize then was “old-timers” who made cartoons being not so old. In fact, most were vital, brimmed still with ideas, but had little place to go with them (how many creative people voluntarily step down?). Consider this: Bob Clampett turned 62 in 1975, Chuck Jones 63, Tex Avery 67, Friz 71, Chuck the main one to take balls and run with them, doing fresh specials for TV and helping WB on the feature compilations (his Road Runner having become a top draw among Warner characters). Meanwhile, Avery was anointed “King of Cartoons” (funniest anyway), but Tex wasn’t able or inclined to take fullest advantage of recognition.

Veteran cartoonists had been interviewed over the years, if on superficial terms. They were only cartoonists, after all. Bob Clampett sat for a profile wherein he spoke in Bugs Bunny voice, figuring this was expected, chances are he was right. At least Bob knew how to entertain. Pressure was a same as applied to comedians, all assumed to be funny on or off cameras. Jones was more the scholar … droll, bookish, but like the rest, happy to be wanted and an always willing interview subject. Clampett had a 70’s leg up for keeping drawers of sketches, cels, scale-statuary used as guides for he and other animators when Bugs, Porky, others, were first developed, his archive unique for history otherwise thrown to dumps by WB when they closed cartoon shop in 1963. Bob’s memory was steel-trappish, his door open always to young people who had grown up on output from his glory days. Bugs Bunny Superstar let a wider net know what good company he was, so Clampett was invited places, like upstate to UC Davis (twice), his student host telling me how Bob pulled long screening and workshop days, then invited students back to his hotel for “sock hops” that went late into night, his only request of the school that they supply tubs of pistachio ice cream. He doted on ice cream. Bob was most eager to stay current, preferring the society of youth. Cartoons he ran came up in the trunk of Clampett’s car. College kids loved him like the Pied Piper. Appearances were far-flung, one to Toronto for a weekend marathon, GPS correspondent Reg Hartt having described these before. Bob’s was the friendliest face of Classic Era cartooning. He even said nice things about Leon Schlesinger.

Interviewers became needle-nose plier detailed. Seems no scholar paid such close attention as TV-raised cartoon hounds. Lazy former queries would ask who invented Bugs or Daffy --- now it was which and why so-and-so drew the open but not the middle of this or that cartoon. Jones enjoyed the hare-splitting, Clampett more than equal to task of recalling it all. Finally had come fans truly interested in their art and craft. Chuck and Bob were questioned at length (separately to be sure) by Michael Barrier and Milton Gray for Funnyworld in 1969. Fur flew later when Jones accused Clampett of hogging credit where entitled to little, or as Chuck saw it, none. There was long term animus here, but not on Bob’s side. He seemed to like everybody. Chuck in a meantime seethed, as he had since the late 30’s. Did Bob euchre him out of a director’s seat, or delay his getting there, way back when? God forgives, Chuck didn’t. He wrote a mean letter denouncing Bob and pushed Tex Avery to co-sign it (Tex later expressed regret), a sort of Lutherish nailing to church door of bitter truths as Chuck Jones saw them. But he too took passive credit for characters at times, not disputing intros that said Jones invented more cartooning wheels than was fact (though Road Runner and Pepe Le Pew were indisputably his).

So far as scatterbrain scribes figured, if you worked at Warners in the 30/40’s, you were Daddy to Bugs, Porky, Gabby Goat, whatever got drawn in yawning days of the art. These were cartoons, for pity’s sake. Let anyone claim creation of beloved characters, as what difference for purpose of fluff articles did it make? Stakes got higher when postwar youth took their stand for integrity of the historical record, even at risk of opening scabs among cartoonists to whom it suddenly mattered who came first to Bugs or Daffy. Documentary evidence was a help 
(precious little survived), plus the cartoons themselves. Thanks to digital, they could now be examined frame-by-frame. Jones wrote a book, several in fact, after Clampett was gone (d.1984). Chuck Amuck came out in 1989 and hardly mentioned Bob. Jones stayed to comfortable age 89, linked much of that time with Warners for purpose of reliving, remerchandising, his cartoon past. Bet he got more money in semi-retirement than when he put Pepe, the coyote, and Hubie/Bertie through paces (Chuck had a gallery that sold cels he made up and signed). Of all that drew for Warners, Jones received the most latter-life laurels, including a special Academy Award. To my knowledge, he never relented re Clampett, and I’ve looked (Friz Freleng said that indeed, Jones "hated" Clampett). Also have asked the mirror if there is anyone I begrudge still after a half-century. Offhand can’t think of a one. Not to judge a past generation, as they were but human like us all, accomplishments (would that our own were so great) balanced by contrariness, this the stuff of ongoing fascination so long as we have the cartoons to enjoy.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Gather Round, You Moon Monsters


Sneaking Peeks At Reborn Doctor X

Classic era fans are spoiled like babies, with so much to watch it’s almost confusing, as if someone gave me a Tootsie Roll that keeps going and going without any end. This past year, just in the horror category, from always amazing George Feltenstein and crew at Warner Archive, we got The Curse of Frankenstein and Mystery of the Wax Museum, both larded with extras, and for thanks they get, Yeah, but where’s a fully restored Horror of Dracula, and Doctor X? Don’t know from plans for the former, but Doctor X is on Spring release boards, as in this Spring (2021), so get ready for another two-color high.

Often in midst of gimme, gimme, I forget (or ignore) real expense these projects incur. Costs obviously run high, this toward individual disc sales at $21.99, that the retail from which an Amazon or elsewhere will pluck dollars to sell it for less (present price: $16.39). I once gave several hundred for a black-and-white print of Doctor X, around 1985 as best recalled, and was thankful to get it. Known then, at least rumored, was Doctor X existence in color, but who had sat down to see that? Would I have given another hundred for just a glimpse? Maybe so, as that’s how coveted such an experience would have been at the time.

Dan Mercer and I saw a color Doctor X, in 35mm, at a 90’s Cinecon, long after sit-down to an 8mm one-reel condensation in an attic garret circa 1973, then Halloween venture to Wake Forest a same year to see Doctor X (albeit B/W) on a combo with newly-discovered Wax Museum in (faded) color. Years later Cinecon crowd was hushed by anticipation. A couple reels were run out of order, but we didn’t care. This was Doctor X in color! What twenty years ago could not approach is what UCLA has digitally achieved now. Glad I’ve lived long enough to see it, provided my own synthetic flesh holds out to Blu-Ray release date. 

I expect Wax Museum did a leap in fan estimation once they had hold of the Blu-Ray, Doctor X to be likely encore of that. Scott MacQueen reports higher hill UCLA climbed to put X right, but they did it, happy outcome a restoration equal to Wax. Detail of efforts will appear in an upcoming Classic Images interview MacQueen had with genre expert Tom Weaver. Amazing result can be got from distressed elements. What I saw in Wax looked like a first strike off nitrate negatives, but no, it was rescue from two 35mm prints in various state of distress. In X case, there was but one print, pretty banged, but no one will imagine so once they’ve had a look.

Venturing among people, it would seem they all should look as forward to Doctor X as I do, having watched Wax Museum multiple times, as I did. Alas … but if we are a mere niche, just how much of a niche? How many units of Wax do you suppose sold? How alone are we in this viewing world? I used to fret over “mainstream” concept of fandom. Well, I don’t think there is a mainstream anymore, at least not one we’d recognize. Too many forums are there for kindred spirits to notice exclusion elsewhere. Where Doctor X is a Big Noise is where I want to be, and let the rest of the world go by.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. Look for DOCTOR X on Blu-ray disc and DVD – coming in Spring of 2021 from the Warner Archive Collection.
Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive and The Film Foundation in association with Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation

Monday, January 25, 2021

Of Old Times and Past Personalities


Lillian Russell From Footlight To Spotlight

20th Fox getting musical start on Gay 90's nostalgia that would last over a decade. 90’s was when a lot of music still popular in 1940 had its start, not unlike us enjoying rock and roll/pop minted through the 50/60's. Difference was modes of dress and transport old-timey to ‘40 viewership, autos/air travel having come since a turn of the century and fashions taking radical new direction, thus memory stroll past endearing strangeness of still recalled times (equivalent to our sentiment for the 70’s?). Hollywood found comfort in presenting a nineteenth cent celeb however way they pleased, there being little film and fewer artifacts to show what these folks truly looked/acted like. So it was free interp on Lillian Russell, and if she wasn't a lot like Alice Faye, then go fish, for Fox was serving need of Faye's fanbase, not what remained of Russell's, them too old in any case to be of consequence.

The real Lillian Russell looks portly from stills, but how so? Weight was said to reach 160 later in the forty-year career, Lillian liking to eat --- in fact, she had chow contests with “Diamond Jim” Brady, the two stuffing selves amidst elegant diners of the day, to feast hearty no source of shame. Ace showman Charles Frohman would order stacks of fresh pie to see him through busy Broadway afternoons, then head to Delmonico’s for whatever more dessert waited on him. Bigger-than-life Frohman, rounder than he was tall, did everything in a large way. If men fed like starved horses, why not women, specifically Lillian, who to the movie’s credit, longs for corn on the cob and how much she puts away in a sitting. The 90’s were gay for plentiful reason. Another way they got the movie right, Alice Faye and her inspiration Lillian being somewhat zaftig, early-on plus for Faye as it had been for Russell. There was not impression that Alice went hungry for cameras. She was, in fact, a best casting for Lillian Russell Fox could have found.

They Could Be Twins! The Real Diamond Jim Brady, and Edward Arnold, Who Played Him

Recordings suggest Russell did not sing so hot, but did have what they called "something," unfair for us to judge by then-voice capture itself primitive and bare hint of what audiences heard. There was gulf of difference between seeing Lillian Russell and just hearing her, visual stimulus an essential where she was concerned. Others were as fragile, Al Jolson notable instance of needing to be there and watch him live and strutting. Moderns deal a same cold hand to both, as in what’s so great about either? Russell tended her own field, attracted powerful men, and harvested diamonds they would garland flower arrangements with. She was into physical culture, so Diamond Jim gifted a jewel encrusted bicycle for Sunday outings. Such was extravagance that, late as the mid-50’s, Marilyn Monroe, at left, recreated the sport stance to evoke Russell in flower. Lillian and Jim’s was a tie-up of convenience, publicity helpful to both for their association, though it’s said Jim offered Lil two million to marry him (more I think about it, had Faye not been available and preferred, Mae West would have been aces as Russell). The movie casts Edward Arnold for a Brady encore, his having done the role first in 1935, Arnold and the real Jim alarmingly similar when you look at old photos. Fictive Brady weeps with his back to the camera after Alice/Lillian passes on his proposal, nice sentiment even if actual Brady never took the turndown as hard (in fact, he had a dozen of the bikes custom-built for a number of pals). So where are the wheels today that he gave Russell? Inquiry says UC Davis, their having bought a warehouse of vintage bicycles from a lifelong collector. What would it be like to spend your span gathering these, says I, as bicycle folk wonder why I do what I do. Each to his own.

We can't know what frisson existed between stage luminaries and their public. Writings handed down might evoke the spell, but not recreate it beyond descriptive word. Still and all, Lillian Russell was filled with living links to past stage and vaudeville tradition, both in front of, and behind, cameras. Director Irving Cummings had played opposite real-life Lillian in her final play, In Search Of A Sinner, and had been introduced to his wife by Diamond Jim Brady. There was supporting player Joseph Cawthorn, a performing colleague to Russell, with Leo Carrillo, another vaude vet, as Tony Pastor. Eddie Foy, Jr. is also in Lillian Russell to recreate one of his father's stage turns. The real Russell was there from variety’s start with Pastor, committed to mature vaudeville by 1905, entered folklore by 1915, did but one movie the same annum (a clip on You Tube, maybe all that exists, her seated in a chair as Lionel Barrymore gesticulates). Lillian appeared too for Kinemacolor cameras, also on YT, an adjunct for her speaking tour called “How To Live 100 Years.” She’d try making good on the notion, was around till 1922 and age 61 exit. What an era to come up in, born 1860 (did her kindergarten celebrate Appomattox?), then being vital to all of modern show biz that followed. Russell would embroider her life for articles in Cosmopolitan near the end. As with many entertainers who wrote, why worry what’s true, so long as it engages? Hers does. Oddly enough, the columns were never gathered for a book, though one installment at least (her beginnings) turns up in acting and vaudeville histories.

Most remarkable of guests appearing in Lillian Russell was Weber and Fields, the joy-boys celebrating sixty-five years at show performing, having been teamed at comedy since they were kids. Fascinating here was the duo staging time-honored routine in a same year latter-day Weber and Fields in the person of Abbott and Costello were making their first splash in movies. Lillian Russell simply stops for W&F's extended turn, the two playing "themselves" in a backstage card game. Six decades had not dulled their timing (but how can we tell?, not having access to Weber-Field perfs from a half-century before), and it's nice to see clowns of such vintage come off effectively. Fox knew there was something special in the reunion, and would not hurry it along. In fact, a delighted Darryl Zanuck had the routine expanded after eyeball at rushes, letting Weber/Fields foolery run to triple the intended length. Critics would say theirs was highlight contribution to Lillian Russell.

Let's Have a Beauty Contest --- Lillian Russell at Left, or Evelyn Nesbit at Right? 

Fox publicized its year-long nationwide search for photos of Lillian Russell. 800 images were turned up. For all I know, that remains what survives today, or could it be even less these eighty-one years after Lillian Russell was made? Such info raises this question too: What becomes of content from a studio's research department? Were those files eventually junked, sold, or what? I'd like to think Fox's research is still extant on the lot, but am not optimistic. Certainly the prep they did for Lillian Russell represented a most extensive inquiry on the woman's life and career up to that time, Fox having far more resource and initiative than any historian before or since. Might those 800 photos of Lillian Russell still be in file cabinets? Further burning inquiry: Was she a most beautiful woman that lived? Yet again … matter of taste, and it depends on what stage of her life portraits were taken (pre or post-corns on the cob). I’m fascinated by really old images thought gorgeous then that still are, or not, today, Russell OK so long as you don’t put her beside Evelyn Nesbit, a for-instance contemporary. So whose vintage beauty, these or others of the period, translate best to today?

Fox went junket route for a dual Lillian Russell premiere, one at their subject's hometown, Clinton, Iowa, the other in Pittsburgh, PA, Russell's last residence. Trains were loaded with stars who'd attend as part of contract duty, such cross-country trips being footloose op to live high off the studio's expense account, empty every bottle in dining compartments, and play musical berths for 3000 miles. The device was good for free publicity at every stop, had raised awareness for Dodge City, Union Pacific, others that opened similarly. Lillian Russell was expensive to make, $1.4 million negative cost, at a time when spending seven figures was far from norm. A lot of critics recalled the real Lillian Russell, some in rose-hue terms, thus pans here/there for Alice Faye's impersonation. The picture ran to what some called an unconscionable 127 minutes, and lost money ($213K). It is fanciful telling of turn-of-century theatre and vaudeville, but for just attempting the vast job, Lillian Russell deserves credit and is a fascinating watch. Alice Faye enjoyed much residual benefit, reprising Russell often for live and TV appearances. It was as if the identities merged in 1940 and stayed that way. An outstanding sample is at You Tube, Faye doing lavish medley of Lillian for a 1968 vid appearance. Lillian Russell is on DVD from Fox, with a nice bio extra on real-life LR. There is also rental or purchase streaming from You Tube in HD.

Where would we be without LANTERN? --- the finest research/history resource movies ever had. Thanks again and again for all this remarkable team has done. 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Bless This Precode Event

 We Need Columnists Like Lee Tracy

I have a question for broadcast authorities. Was anyone ever shot on live radio? It happens in Blessed Event and seems credible to me. Surely among hundreds of thousands of hours sent into ether orbit, blood was spilled. Certainly there were incidents on television, viewable at You Tube given stomach for them. Reporters/columnists of the roaring era were often mistook for skeet by a criminal element. They die regular in precode The Finger Points, Dance, Fools, Dance, others. To gather news was to assume risk, city streets dangerous as those of the frontier west. Audiences took much of precode for truth. I know I do, or at least want to. Blessed Event was hot, had 115 NY performances (2-12 to 5-21, 1932), was nakedly inspired by Walter Winchell. Roger Pryor as keyhole peeper “Alvin Roberts,” nee Winchell, intrigued latter enough to stop in with "a massive bodyguard" for his own peep. Any publicity was good publicity, so Winchell let the show alone, Hollywood meanwhile eager to adapt, that confirmed by five offers, Blessed Event ideal for on-lot dynamos. Paramount had the property in mind for Jack Oakie, Universal figured Lew Ayres to lead, and James Dunn was thought right by Fox. Most serious offers were floated by MGM and Warners, WB snatching the ball with $1,000 over Leo’s offer and getting Blessed Event for $66K.

Overworked and underpaid Jim Cagney was visiting New York and caught the play. Maybe he saw little to it, or was fed up at prospect of playing another go-getter, evermore ruction with Warners over money a factor as well. He'd come home, start Blessed Event, then pull out. Any player less potent would have been bounced offsite for such affront, but this was Cagney, urgency less to punish a star who ankled than find one who could fill in toot sweet. That would be Lee Tracy, late of The Front Page on NY stage, understudied by pre-star Cagney when Tracy starred in Broadway, Lee emerged as an East Coast doppelganger to West Coast Jim. He had been tried in pictures and figured for Cagney at faster clip. In fact, Tracy was quick enough with words to leave hinterlands at loss as to what this dervish was about. Too, he lacked romance, being smarmy to degree matched by demon scribes his stage/screen lot. Crowds doubted Tracy winning Fay Wray at the end of Doctor X or beauteous Mary Brian here. Still, it was raw energy Lee was selling, and at that, he was peerless.


The play supplied topper moments to spare. One where Tracy detail-describes electric chair ritual was morbid past what horror shows dealt, but crowds at urban caves lapped it like cats after cream (Blessed Event blessed both Warner Strands, Manhattan and Brooklyn), them hardened to what tabloids taught about reality of the streets. Such attitude seeped to states far afield and their hometown Bijous, caustic travelling fast. Columnist Tracy is a "heel" to extent of valuing success more than people, but viewers caught the drift, having come round to life as struggle if not an outright racket. Soft guys finishing last was understood as the way things were, Lee Tracy handy to confirm and invite emulation. Any notion of journalism as font of integrity was dashed by Blessed Event, but didn't every profession get its precode baptism in fire? (such as Wm. Powell/Warren William telling tough truth in Lawyer Man/The Mouthpiece).

How many “keyhole columnists” thrived in the 30’s? Winchell was a most noted, but had rivals (one to reckon with: Ed Sullivan). Did these men get death threats like Lee Tracy in the movie? If so, were any made good? I’m guessing that if Winchell took a beat-down, he kept it to himself. Not much image enhancement in having your head kicked in regular. Did Winchell really fear no one? Sampling I’ve seen of his columns make me wish there were anthologies of Winchell stuff. Of course it dates --- the whole point for me. He was what they called a “word-slinger.” Winchell began in vaudeville, knew how to entertain, his output gracious for that. Briefest squibs are his best, sort of like Dorothy Parker where once you get past her quotable quotes, there is same standard her stories and poetry had to meet, others in those crafts understood to be better, but she, Winchell, select few, carried sharpest rapiers.

Blessed Event
as a play had Roger Pryor for the lead. I see him onscreen as a stiff, first exposure being where Karloff put Pryor and others in deep freeze for Columbia in 1940. On him, hot or cold didn’t much matter, but who’s to say he was anything other than a dynamo on stage? Some could conquer movies, others live performing. Not so many mastered both. Also from Blessed stage cast came Allen Jenkins, Isabel Jewell, and Lee Patrick, each to become familiars at Warners and type-casting elsewhere. Was legit a better source for character talent than fresh stars? Potential drafted from Pittsburgh of all places was Dick Powell, favorite of locals for three years he spent emceeing at presentation houses, his said to be razor repartee twixt bands and film (he sang, played instruments, too). Powell stole Blessed Event, said at least insiders with vested interest. His mile-high tenor is chucklesome to us --- he’d poke fun at it years later on television, long after tough guy Powell was accepted fact. Cheerful oddities Blessedly abounding: Ruth Donnelly as Tracy/Alvin secretary refers to “Tennyson’s brook,” we and he expected to pick up reference to nineteenth-century British poetry (Cagney dropped a same line to “President Roosevelt” in Yankee Doodle Dandy). Proof again that writing, watchers, the lot, were more cultivated than our sad lot now.

Lee Reminds Me of Bill Fields In This Capture

What precode gave was keyhole view of the news game. Since daily scribes wrote most tales of their trade, it was a cinch they’d flatter themselves, and each other. Winchell was happy as a clam with Blessed Event, handing it orchids wherever run, letting Warner use squibs at will. A tough game was reporting, but Alvin Roberts has a heart, if late-emerging. Score up Blessed Event for bounce unlike weighty lift of decades-later Ace In The Hole, where we’re invited not to enjoy Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, but instead wait for just dessert he'll be served. For such “brave” statement on media abuses, it seems to me Ace In The Hole chickens out at the end the way Blessed Event does not. Precode was the goods --- think the PCA would have let Blessed Event happen in 1951? Kirk Douglas driving all that way to tell Mr. Boot “you can have me for nothing,” before dropping headlong dead at his editor’s feet. Do please show me the door.

To save for last, then: Lee Tracy (pre-Hollywood, on stage, at left). I found fan mag profiles attacking drink rumors and aver of unreliability on Lee’s part, seemingly from a moment he detrained in California. He called it a crock framed by enemies afraid to show their face. Is it possible Lee had too much talent and energy for his own good? Cagney was as wired, but on screen only, being otherwise bookish and retiring. One could be jaunty and say Lee pi—ed away his standing, but that would require buy into accounts brought back from Mexico and Viva Villa location. I would have sent the naughty boy upstairs without supper, then had him back at work the next day. Besides, reliable sources say the thing never happened, or happened very different, and milder, than what was reported (mild version an obscene gesture from the street below, which Tracy returned). Enough of Lee --- his legacy is safe so long as Blessed Event unspools. Note above Schine’s Palace ad (Lockport, NY) where Blessed Event is featured with a one act comedy performed by the “High School Dramatic Class,” and there’s a six-person cast list, plus a director credited. Suppose College Bred was as funny as Blessed Event?
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