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Thursday, January 07, 2021

A Few Fitted For Modest


Where Choice Isn't Always Classics

SATURDAY'S HEROES (1937) --- An hour's game of football plus corruption that drove/drives the sport. Movies weren't shy in peeling back turf to show big dollars behind college ball. Maybe pic-makers saw similarity of their racket to pig-skinning. Student and star player Van Heflin begins as hustler and ticket-scalper before doing about face to expose rotten core of his school's program, a whiplash for viewers deep into a third act before confirm of Van as title hero. Heflin played even early stuff a little ambivalent, not wanting his audience complacent. Unconventional looks were all that delayed launch to stardom from interesting B's like Saturday's Heroes, and it would need MGM to develop him properly. Football as topic could be dull without off-field tension, that usually revolved around pressure to play despite injury, saving the college itself, or as here, challenging cash-driven staff and coaching. Simple matter of winning the big game and getting a girl was out the door by mid-thirties realization that football was cold, hard business. Whatever was left of sport as sport henceforth played for comedy.

SHOOTING HIGH (1940) --- Hesitate calling this a "B" western because it's really nothing of the sort. Shooting High is a 20th Fox Jane Withers vehicle where Gene Autry is an honored guest. By way of that being understood, he is billed second. Withers was filling out and past kid stuff (in receipt of  "first kiss" within a following year), she the little sister with Cupid-ish design to merge Gene with Marjorie Weaver just short of Withers qualifying for the mush stuff herself, this happening but tentative for Withers in any case, as hers was a singular type that for whatever reason would not be taken seriously in romance mode. Shooting High was allegedly Jane Withers' idea and she persuaded Fox's Joe Schenck and Herb Yates of Republic to bargain the Autry loan, an account unlikely enough to be true and among few instances where a contract player took it upon him/herself to assemble a next project. The outcome is OK, being impure Autry (less action, and where's Frog?), neither fish nor fowl where genre placement is concerned. As novelty it clicks, and runs just past an hour, Shooting High having cost $304K, for which Republic could make a sackful of westerns, but this was Fox, and they'd not shortchange a dream-teaming of Withers with Singer Cowboy #1. Worldwide rentals were $525K, not a windfall, but on a high side of what the Withers pix had been returning. Autry apparently bought the negative later, because Shooting High circulates with the rest of his owned stuff today.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

I admire your determination to watch almost anything with sprocket holes pre-1950. Neither of these, even at their length, seems worth watching to me. Although I'm the guy who watched another football/criminal B release, "Over the Goal". Only Eddie Anderson and Hattie McDaniel make it worth a sit.

Was football that crooked then? "Saturday's Heroes", "Over the Goal", even "Horse Feathers" have as many crooks as players. Then there's Wheeler & Woolsey's "Hold 'em Jail," where the game is played by convicts. It's a wonder the game is still played.

3:26 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Didn't know Autry took over SHOOTING HIGH! Thanks for letting us know.

Here's how Jane Withers (still with us at 94) tells how she came to make SHOOTING HIGH, as interviewed by Mike Fitzgerald:

Joseph Schenck was then head of 20th Century-Fox. I wanted to do a film with Gene Autry, so I called Mr. Schenck. He told me Gene was Republic’s biggest star and they’d never loan him to Fox. So, I asked if he would loan me to Republic but he told me I was the number 6 boxoffice draw in the country, and Fox would never loan me to another studio. He did agree it was a great idea, it would be boxoffice dynamite!

I just had to do a picture with Gene Autry, so I put it in my prayers. Then I called Republic. When the studio operator answered, I told her I would like to talk to the head of the studio—I didn’t even know his name at the time. She said, "Little girl, a lot of people would like to talk to Mr. Yates, but he’s a busy man." I told her, "Well, I’m a busy girl. My name is Jane Withers, and could you please connect me?" The operator screamed, "The Jane Withers, the actress? I'm sure Mr. Yates would be thrilled to speak with you." Mr. Yates was in an important conference, but she said she’d take a note into him; he’d definitely want to talk to me.

I waited for awhile and finally he came on the phone. "Hello, is this little Jane Withers? I’m Herbert Yates and I'm a big fan of yours!" I told him I had a terrific idea—I wanted to make a picture with Gene Autry—and he said he’d love to borrow me. I had to explain that Mr. Schenck wouldn’t loan me and thought he wouldn’t loan Gene, but that I had a great idea and that, Honest Injun, I would not take up more than 15 minutes of his time. He had a board meeting, but I was getting out of school at noon and could meet him around 2:30. He said he’d explain to the others and leave the meeting when I arrived. True to his word, Mr. Yates left the meeting.

I explained that perhaps Fox could loan Republic two or three of their stars in exchange for Gene, since neither studio would loan us to the other, outright. He thought that a good idea, so we called Fox. Mr. Schenck’s secretary said he was in an important meeting. I told her if she went in and slipped him a note, saying Jane Withers was at Republic in Mr. Yates's office, he might come out and talk to us. And he did! I wouldn’t take no for an answer. Not when I knew this would be good for everyone concerned. I was afraid Mr. Schenck would be mad at me, but he wasn’t! He thought it a wonderful idea! Mr. Yates told him he had a very determined young lady with a very credible idea! It was like having a baby—it took nine months to put the deal through, but three of Fox’s stars were loaned to Republic in exchange for Gene. And, as I thought, the picture was enormously successful! It was one of the biggest boxoffice pictures of the ‘39-‘40 season.

4:45 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Who did Fox loan to Republic and for what movie?

9:05 AM  
Blogger Ken said...

A couple of Fox starlets (Mary Beth Hughes and Pauline Moore) made brief appearances at Republic around this time (for "The Covered Trailer" and "The Carson City Kid", respectively. I suspect they may have been part of any purported Fox-Republic talent exchange. There's no way Tyrone Power or Alice Faye would've been seen traipsing over to Poverty Row.

3:11 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I'm guessing the Ritz Brothers, who refused a loan-out to Republic and left Fox's employ thereafter.

8:48 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Thanks! You guys know your stuff!

9:26 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer ponders Merle Oberon as shown in this week's banner image:

The header photograph shows Merle Oberon and David Niven, radiant and astonishingly youthful looking, lying upon the white sand of a beach and looking up from a book, scarcely read, to gaze happily at the camera. This was part of the publicity campaign mounted in 1935, after Samuel Goldwyn had signed Oberon to a contract and was preparing to star her in a sound remake of “The Dark Angel.” Other features of the campaign showed her with her new best friend in Hollywood, Norma Shearer, who supposedly took a sisterly interest in the shy young woman. So was it said in LIFE. Her companion in this picture, David Niven, was a fellow Goldwyn player and would soon be seen squiring her to various night spots around town. The pairing of the two was intended to enhance her image as a nice, pretty English girl, Niven also being a native of that land. Her background, however, was somewhat more colorful than his.

Earlier in that year, Twentieth Century Pictures had released “Folies Bergere,” in which Oberon had a prominent part as a countess and rival, to Ann Sothern, for the attention of Maurice Chevalier. Her appearance was decidedly exotic, with dark hair lacquered in a tight coif, skin porcelained with makeup, mouth a small, piquant rose, and slanted eyes darkly outlined. Her face resembled a Benda mask. As part of the Goldwyn publicity, she gave interviews professing an intense dislike for how she appeared in that film, when it was so different from who she really was. She certainly did not want to be typecast as such an exotic. Indeed, in “The Dark Angel,” she would be sweet and wholesome, with nothing to suggest anything alien. Her terror at typecasting, however, may have had more to do with how very much closer it was to her background than this new persona. She was born in Calcutta, India as Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson, purportedly to Arthur Terrance O’Brien Thompson, a British engineer working for India Railways, and Charlotte Selby, who had been a native of Ceylon and was of part-Maori descent. I say “purportedly,” for it seems that she was actually born to Constance Selby, Charlotte’s 12 year-old daughter, as the result of a rape. To avoid public comment, Charlotte raised Merle as her daughter and Constance’s half-sister. Much later, after Oberon traveled to England and broke into films, she crafted a tale of having been born in Tasmania, Australia, also to avoid comment, not to say any barriers that might have been raised against a young woman of mixed blood.

The makeover was completed by the Goldwyn studio. In this picture, her hair is a little lighter and in a flowing style that caresses her face, the make-up is modest, and the beach setting is such that an ivory complexion would only testify to the now popular past-time of sunbathing. At least one impressionable young man, seeing her films from this period, imagined that she was the very expression of feminine beauty.

Many years later, Oberon had to visit Hobart, Australia on a film promotion. When reporters pressed her for details of her upbringing in Tasmania, she became ill and soon left for Mexico, where she lived with the latest of her husbands, the industrialist, Bruno Pagliai. Still later, she agreed to attend a Lord Mayoral reception in Hobart, where a theater had been named in her honor. Once more, she responded to questions about her childhood by excusing herself because of illness. She was dead within a year, and a few years after that, Charles Higham and his researcher, Roy Mosely, began plucking at the first of the tangled threads of her life story.

8:14 PM  

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