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Thursday, February 04, 2021

How Long They Wait To Look Right

It Might Be Captain Newman Or a Thousand Others

Let’s say you order breakfast, and here is what they bring: eggs a little runny, edible, if barely, bacon soft, or too crisp, but will do, toast not toasted, still bread, but better withal than nothing. This was the lot for movie viewing from the moment they came off developing racks. Film was fragile and fair game besides. Artists had no control over presentation once their effort went aboard trucks. Everything from point of departure spelled compromise. New-released Captain Newman, M.D. on Blu-Ray is itself less cause to fly banners, a fish-nor-fowl if classy view at WWII handling of PTSD cases, with Gregory Peck a psych counselor to patients and near-as-wacky clinic staff. We could go to Captain Newman and get a ticket’s worth of laughing and tears, or tears with laughter, whatever one's taste of the moment. A Captain Newman served useful purpose, what with stars (Tony Curtis, Angie Dickinson, other familiars, with Peck), much polish, writing to at moments flatter a listener. You might exit venues and hear someone say, “parts of it made me think.” But merit of the movie won’t concern me today. More striking is Captain Newman on Blu-Ray as first opportunity since 1963 to see it much as what makers intended. What we had, still do, from our movies was/is viewing experience diminished one way or other from what should be. If any art suffers PTSD across boards, it is what we call a liveliest of them, but hardest of all to preserve and present.

Look at books, painting, sculpture. They last. Busts that survive from ancient Rome grace museums today (though they once had color, even if now chalk-white). Painted canvas need not fade so long as kept in proper environments (I know there are lost masterpieces, but so many as there are lost films?). You can reprint a two-hundred-year-old novel and get intact what the author set down. Classical music sounds better than many a first-time performance, thanks to instruments more developed that reflect better the composer’s vision. Remember The Eagle from some months back? I sat the whole time wishing it looked something like, remotely like, what audiences saw in 1925. Fine art from then, valued as we fans value The Eagle, is not only around, but for most part impressive as what first recipients got. Yes, there are unfortunate exceptions, but so many as with movies? For us, losses aren’t exceptions. The exceptions are watchable prints, especially from the silent era. Film was always a popular art, too popular for being underestimated and disposable, not only by a public, but owners who should have, but too seldom did, protect their output. How could they, with pace of exhibition so fleet, hunger of ancillary markets so voracious. Here was art driven always by money, money, money, that a consequence of much spent in the doing, necessity to get it back and then some, plus what made and kept movies as that liveliest art … everyone wanting, wanting, wanting, liveliest translated to most in demand.

I use Captain Newman as random basis to preach. Sample could as readily be another Universal, or anyone’s, release from 1963, or anytime. Why not, say, A Gathering of Eagles, being efficient account of modern aviation and military readiness, in scope with Rock Hudson, also a Universal release, but nowhere except for lousy transferring for On-Demand DVD. To my reckoning, A Gathering of Eagles is essentially lost. Not a big deal? Alright, but I think how much Eagles could entertain in a good presentation, and it rankles. Back to Captain Newman on long trek toward cheerier outcome, its road rocky from leaving labs. Premieres, or an important trade show, would call for a “best” print to unspool, tip-off that not all of them turned out so good as preferred, print-runs no better than technicians in charge. Passover to distribution, then exhibition, put more mud in the creek. Unless a print was brand new and unused, you had to worry how booths before had left it. Bad splices, ones made with straight pins for pity sake, left blood on rewind tables. Surest way to ideally see Captain Newman? I propose the “Doors Open” show at 9:30 am on February 20, 1964 at Radio City Music Hall, or one of Los Angeles, Westwood, or Hollywood first-runs (ad above), so long as you got to indoor sites early, as in a first day, or at least a first week. Responsible venues took print wear into account. They’d go through multiples for a long run, especially a showcase like Radio City where the best was a minimum expectation. But look at L.A. for Captain Newman in its “2nd Smash Week.” Hardtops were aboard, but also drive-ins, and from a start. Meaningful first-run percentage saw Captain Newman outdoors, heaven spare them. Watching anything at a drive-in was but bare step up from nothing at all. Bad or dim light, maybe the sun still out, more distraction than if you were at a dog track, and worse of all, punk sound. Your sister’s transistor radio did better. I wonder if William Russell or Waldon O. Watson, Universal sound engineers in charge of Captain Newman, drove out to the Sun-Val or elsewhere for a listen. Would surely have dispirited them, or maybe (more likely) both were long inured to efforts gone splat soon as same left their capable hands. Who could fault cynicism taking hold?

Ponder the sub-runs, or better, don’t. Here is where movies went to die. Exchanges would retire a print only if, when, it was too tattered to go through a projector. Trouble was, the worse shape it was in, the more damage projectors did, especially where operators were inexperienced. It took years to become a truly skilled projectionist. Our Liberty had an artisan in the booth, but no one saw him, comings-going in or out an alley door, seldom to interact with patrons, or see the sun, but rarely would shows fail on his account. Who of us sent up gesture of thanks for that? Never occurred to me, should have, as I maintained at least an 8mm set-up at home, so was aware of trials an operator faced. Once out of first-runs, a Captain Newman was useful to support a newer attraction. It performed well, ranking #21 among Variety’s “Big Rental Pictures of 1964,” showing $3.325 million in domestic rentals as of 1/6/65, the trade’s “Revenue Anticipation” totaling $4.250 million. Breaking numbers down in terms of then-ticket prices suggests less than eight million people saw Captain Newman at a theatre or drive-in during 1964-65. Samuel Arkoff used the statistic (in a 1974 interview) to argue a decline of “B” movies, saying you simply did not need them anymore, since “very, very few people ever see a picture theatrically.” Edward Small had made a same argument to Variety nine years earlier in 11/65, saying that most “A” pictures, “with few exceptions,” played to no more than five million people in theatres. Arkoff asked why not use a cheap-rented “A” as your second feature? To those eight million, or Small’s five, who went to see Captain Newman on a big screen, Arkoff would exclaim “That’s less than four percent of the population!,” or if we relied on Ed Small’s calculation, less than that.

Did Captain Newman have reissue worth? Not likely. North By Northwest lost money for MGM when they tried reviving it in 1966, fresh prints and ads costing more than could be recovered. An only recourse was television if Universal wanted more revenue out of Captain Newman, thus placement in a feature package Universal offered to NBC. The deal was historic, “about sixty” theatrical and made-for-TV movies to begin broadcasting with the 1966-67 season and thereafter, each title valued at or near $500K. Captain Newman was one of the good ones, along with Charade, That Touch Of Mink, and The Birds. Network premiere was 1/20/68 on Saturday Night At The Movies, starting at 8:30 to accommodate 126 minutes of running time. Ratings were boff, among a year's best for NBC movies, twenty-five million or so watching. Factor that with comparatively paltry number that saw Captain Newman on paying basis. Movies were no longer your best entertainment … TV was. A softbound book (TV 68) trumpeted the viewing season and featured brief reviews of scheduled features by Howard Thompson, who for years had done a same service for New York Times listing of local televised films. Thompson’s Newman capsule was generally kind, “but the picture too often hops from solemn to rib-tickling.” TV GUIDE meanwhile had Judith Crist doing a weekly page of picks and pans. Of Captain Newman, she said “corn and cliches are rampant,” but like Thompson, she generally liked the show. TV GUIDE subscribers took to Crist, as evident by her long stay there. Millions more read this critic than were ever exposed to Pauline Kael of a same period, as what was The New Yorker beside TV GUIDE?

Surprise evidence of Crist in continuing demand: A paperback anthology, Judith Crist’s TV GUIDE To The Movies, was published in 1974, at present a seeming nowhere to be found. Amazon does not list used copies, unusual for a late dated publication, none are currently at Ebay, and ABE books has but a single copy listed, for $62.00 (’74 cover price: $1.50). Is Crist a hottest collectible around? Captain Newman had a 1.85 frame, so looked OK on television, at least better than anamorphic titles “adapted” to the tube. Where it suffered was syndication that followed NBC play (their repeat 7/2/68), Captain Newman diced heavy for placement in local two-hour slots. Up to thirty minutes generally came out. This was how features fared during long siege between theatrical and the arrival of home video. At last via latter you could own a movie and watch it uninterrupted. Universal, as “MCA Video,” released Captain Newman on VHS cassette in 1987. Seems that too is scarce now, one listed recent at Ebay (“This is truly a find because it has never been opened,” says the would-be seller). You can “Buy-It-Now” for $150. I have to assume people who accumulate VHS are doing it for the box art, image quality surely no criterion. Point is, Captain Newman, and increasing others, look on Blu-Ray the way we wish they had looked since new. Being able to project shows like this, seeing them good or better than ever before, makes for repeated occasion to count one’s blessings.


Blogger Randy said...

I have a battered copy of the Crist book. I always assumed it was intended to compete with Stephen Scheuer's "Movies on TV" and Leonard Maltin's "TV Movies."

I had a TV program director tell me he hated the Maltin book because it included running times in its capsule reviews, which the TV fella said gave everybody with a copy of the book and a stopwatch justification to call the station and complain -- with proof -- that their favorite movie had had twelve minutes cut out of it when it ran last Saturday afternoon.

12:02 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

On early television, lousy transmission was not only expected but counted on. I've read in a couple of places that series and game show sets were alarmingly cheesy in person. And on an old "Adventures of Superman" episode the commentary noted that the mystery villain's identity was clearly visible in a few shots -- it was assumed that he'd be sufficiently obscured on a small, lower-res TV screen.

In recent years high-res restorations of older films have called attention to special effects once concealed, such as wires supporting spacecraft and rope-climbing actors, rear projection, and mixing of film elements. Pre-HD could also be a bit more forgiving to actors playing younger. But yes, even B filmmakers must have blanched to see the abused prints you describe.

Some time ago I was watching a DVD of a restored Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes. The special features included a pre-restoration clip. I was momentarily overwhelmed by nostalgia, flashing back to fuzzy UHF broadcasts and washed-out public domain tapes. It certainly wasn't what the filmmakers wanted, but it was what a few generations actually saw.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Yes, as a '60s kid I took so many poor 16mm movie prints on TV in stride. Did't old movies look this way when first released, right? The other night on TCM I saw a bit of Public Enemy (1931), and was astonished how crisp and clear it looked. I recall something far more dilapidated decades earlier. And don't even ask about the faded color of other movies I never seemed to question. Watching restored, complete movies of whatever decade now is total bliss. And I'll always be a physical media person!

8:40 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

"The New York Times Guide to Movies on TV" edited by Howard Thompson is one of the best movie book ever!

10:15 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer points out acting talent beyond CAPTAIN NEWMAN's star leads:

“Captain Newman, M.D.” was the sort of farrago not uncommon during that period, where farce could be paired with the most intense drama. Others of that kind were films with wartime settings like “Operation Petticoat,” “Kiss Them for Me,” and “Wings of Eagles,” but “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” offers that same unlikely combination.

The acting is first rate, however, whether by the dramatic artists or farceurs, and among the cast was an exceptional actress, Bethel Leslie. She appeared often on the Broadway stage and as much on television then. She was in what was possibly the best “Rifleman” episode, “Stopover,” directed by the noted Budd Boetticher, as a woman making her living in saloons and by other means. Leslie’s character is introduced as she gets off a stage during a driving snowstorm at night, her face shrouded except for her eyes, which catch the lamplight.

She rarely appeared in films, perhaps because she did not have the appearance or persona that would have commended her to stardom. She was slender and petite, and her face, with its searching eyes, broad forehead, sharp nose, and mouth with its deliciously long upper lip, might not have gained a first glance from many people, but would always have rewarded a second or third. She used this face with a delicate talent for revealing the thoughts and emotions of the character she was playing, a sudden relaxation of the tension fixing its expression revealing the heart that had until then been hidden and protected.

Like Jean Simmons, it was the character that prevailed in her performances, not something that remained entirely her own regardless of the character. In “Captain Newman, M.D.,” she is the wife of an officer who remained in hiding from the Germans until he was rescued, but suffered severely repressed emotions as a result. Newman believes that her warmth and passion could break through a state amounting to catatonia, but he didn’t reckon on her being of type of woman more prevalent during that time, one who enjoyed a certain status and position and the values and restraint that defined and preserved them. She is hardly less repressed than her damaged husband. Leslie is excellent is displaying that rigidity, but also the love that ultimately overwhelms it. In Newman’s office, as he assures her of her husband’s love for her, a love so deep that he would rather remain a vegetable for all the rest of his life, than for her to be ashamed of him, her face softens, her body shudders with the breath she suddenly needs, and a new radiance suffuses her as she becomes what she needs to be, if her husband is to be saved and herself as well.

It is a pity that her work has become so hard to find, for being performed on stage or in episodic television, but it is good news that this particular vehicle is available in such a welcome format.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

Never cared for CAPTAIN NEWMAN, too much drama.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I trained for six months to become a projectionist, but petty workplace politics convinced me the effort required wasn't worth it. Back then we used carbon rods instead of bulbs and that caused a certain amount of stress. They were expensive, so rods too short to last a 20-minute reel were used for short subjects and previews. Then they had to be replaced by newer ones. Lots of rewinding by hand and jumping back and forth between projector #1 and projector #2. The two dots--separated by roughly five seconds--in the upper right which directed the projector change over were impossible to unsee once you knew they were there. I've had friends excoriate me for pointing them out since they can't miss them now.
Well, NOW they actually can: platters took over holding the whole movie and today of course there is no actual film involved.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I booked EASY RIDER in 16mm for a run at Rochdale College in the 1970s. Color and sound in that movie, of course, are everything. The color was awful, the print ragged. I asked for a new print. It was worse as was a second, third and fourth. They had given me the best print they had first.

I do not miss those days at all.

Digital is if not forever certainly a lot longer than film.

Few see value in what we have now. For too many, time has to pass to make the present of value. That is why so many films are lost.

As Henri Langlois said, "Good taste is the enemy." So are like and dislike.

Good post as always.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Love the drive in double bill of NEWMAN and DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES...complete with kiddies playground!Hopefully wore the kids out and fast asleep in the back before either film got too intense....all the local drive-in venues in SE Michigan seemed to book something a bit more child friendly for the lower part of the bill, with a cartoon first, usually shown when it was still light!

5:00 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

From Griff on CAPTAIN NEWMAN and another interesting Universal of the same period, 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE (Part One):

Dear John:

Fine post considering something about the ephemeral nature of this art form, the way things used to be, the way things are now.

I haven't seen the new disc, but I know what you mean regarding how we can now view the movie "much as what makers intended." For years, I used to try to see new releases as soon as possible, view the best possible prints in better theatres... because after a relatively brief period they would become tattered, pocked and worn. Many readers of this swell blog are aware of the complexity of careful, quality projection... and they are also aware, I think, how economic measures on the part of many theatres (as well as so called "automated projection" techniques) tended to eliminate a lot of necessary attention to basic maintenance and print care. [I'm not really blaming projectionists here.] When a movie went into 16mm TV syndication, all bets were off -- you couldn't depend on what it would look like (the prints, particularly from Columbia, were depressingly variable in quality, and if your local station's film-chain mechanism was faulty or dim, watch out), or what would be left out (or left in).

Until late last year, I hadn't seen Universal's 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE, the studio's uneasy 1962 update of LITTLE MISS MARKER, in its entirety since it came out. The Panavision-shot movie really suffered on television; between the mediocre syndication prints and a lot of questionable pan-and-scan telecine decisions, it was too hard to watch. But this had been long on my wanna-see-again list, if only to view again the movie's wild, never to be repeated by anyone, lengthy sequence featuring Disneyland location work. [Despite that it consistently and maddeningly violates basic rules of park geography, no fan of The Happiest Place on Earth should pass up a chance to see this sequence, which vividly captures the look of the Magic Kingdom in 1962.]

I was elated to find that a fairly recent Universal DVD pretty well replicated the original widescreen look of the movie; this was a DVD and not a Blu-ray, but I found myself wondering whether the picture had looked quite this good back in '62. The Disneyland material -- geographic orientation issues notwithstanding -- looked terrific. I even noticed at the beginning a quietly impressive, quite lengthy uninterrupted location crane shot following Tony Curtis through the Tahoe casino he runs. We see Curtis stop and talk to his employees, interact with guests, observe problems that need to be addressed; technically audacious and well done. [The shot was, in part, first-time director Norman Jewison's way of saying, "I am here," but it works.]

I guess I'm trying to say that I really appreciate your discourse here. Neither 40 POUNDS or CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D. are masterpieces, but here we are, over fifty years after their theatrical premieres, able to look at them... "much as what makers intended." That matters. Would that we could see THE EAGLE that way.

12:58 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Griff:

CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D. is long (it feels long, anyhow), episodic and despite the construction skills of the Ephrons, sort of formless. This was an almost ideal movie for television syndication; there's a lot that could probably come right out of it without overtly disrupting the narrative. It could be easily trimmed for various different time-slots!

It's a sometimes uncertain blend of drama and comedy. Curtis, I think, is very good and easy to take as an amiable dog-robber. His antics may not quite belong in the same movie with the heavy drama surrounding the Eddie Albert character, but I can't fault the work of either performer. David Miller might not have been the director to figure out how to accommodate near slapstick and tragedy in one narrative -- this might have taken the skill or imagination of a Wyler or a Zinnemann -- but a lot of the scenes play. Dan Mercer, as usual, is correct about Bethel Leslie, a terrific actress who never found her niche in the movies (though she effectively appeared in odd movies like THE RABBIT TRAP and OLD BOYFRIENDS). She was wonderful as Mary Tyrone in the '86 Broadway revival of "Long Day's Journey Into Night." I'm not sure exactly how Bobby Darin wound up with an Oscar nomination for this, but he's okay in the film.

I'd like to see the Universal paperwork, though, regarding the studio's semi-formal attempt to re-name the movie simply CAPTAIN NEWMAN, as seen in the display ads on your page. Did someone at the studio fear that Gregory Peck might come off as less macho to prospective audiences if he was both an officer AND a doctor?

-- Griff

12:59 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon returns (and welcome!). Here he is on CAPTAIN NEWMAN. But check too the recent cartoon post, for he posts there about seeing a Road Runner theatrically in 1961 (with THE COMANCHEROS), and was in the audience for a cast/crew screening of STAR WARS in 1977, which featured a surprise WB cartoon. Great stuff as always from Craig:

Hi John,

Loved your last two columns, not to ignore the fact dozens (it seems) have gone by without me catching all of them. But these two provide ample evidence you've lost none of your edge in vivid style and enthusiasm.

From most recent, I can only contribute the fact I saw "Captain Newman M.D." VERY much as you posit, in a possibly not first-run, but not at the end of the trail. It was a drive-in, the most likely suspect being 'our' very local and I think exemplar of the breed, the Century (whose marquee and driveway has amusingly a couple of seconds of screen time in the marvelous Kanin/Gordon/Cukor film "The Marrying Kind", though it's all supposed to take place in New Jersey!), in Inglewood, CA. I do remember its heterogenous mix of low comedy and melodrama, and liking it. I haven't seen it since it was new--1963. I smiled seeing the other films in the clippings you've reproduced, recognizing the fact I'd seen ALL those movies in first run. What's more remarkable is the fact that I have had the privilege of seeing most of the stars of "Captain Newman M.D." in person: Gregory Peck, Angie Dickinson, Tony Curtis, and Eddie Albert. Not Bobby Darin, for his life was too short, for one thing. I don't think (?) he even survived the '60s, though I'm not darting over to the IMDB to check. I'm very close to ordering a copy of this just to relive the interesting feel of Universal's product at his tipping point (one of so many) in their long history. Note that the picture's produced by Robert Arthur, who produced one of the studio's best, most profitable and most influential, yet least pretentious comedies, "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein".

5:41 PM  

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