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Monday, April 26, 2021

What Shook Them Plenty In The Twenties


When The Monster (1922 and 1925) Terrified and Tickled Us 

Lon Chaney in The Monster would seem to have all of necessary ingredients, adaptation from a Broadway play that ran 101 performances, Roland West direction, a dark house with trap passages, human vivisection planned if not carried out … the title alone proposes full and final statement on all things horrific. Think how many chillers before or after might thrive on such definitive labeling to sum up content a hundred score others shared. Were one to make a film about a monster, would it not be ideally called The Monster? Yet we barely know this Monster, regarding little, if any of it, as outstanding, not even Chaney, his entry delayed till thirty minutes in. I've gone years underestimating The Monster, was put right by perusing a collection of Broadway theatre reviews (1918-1923) by Dorothy Parker, most unseen since long-ago publication, then rescue from yellowed newsprint by editor Kevin C. Fitzpatrick. Parker we know as seasoned wit of verse, short stories, general observations with sting in the tail. She roasted many a hapless play, but The Monster wasn’t one of them. The hard-boiled reviewer found it terrifying, sarcasm off. Is it time we acknowledge scary tales told from darkened stages as most effective transmit of tension, a mode to spook us more than mere movies could? For all of shock I’ve seen on celluloid, there’s not been one all-out horror performed live to my eyes. Parker’s shivery review of The Monster from 1922 makes me realize I missed quite a something for not being around when scares issued more from stages than screens.

At first it seemed she was being clever at The Monster’s expense, but no, Parker was genuinely spooked. Mirroring mood of the fun-inflected chiller, there is warning to faint hearts tempered by Dorothy Parker wit that would characterize all she’d do through a long career. The best of previous thrill plays were “as the pattering of raindrops on a tin roof compared to even the calmest stretches of The Monster,” Parker citing The Bat and The Cat and the Canary as “little lullabies” beside this “truly grand show! … The gentleman seated next to me will bear to his grave the marks I left upon him when I clutched him in a frenzy of terror during the close of the second act. Heaven only knows how he laughed off those feminine fingerprints when he got home to his wife.” Parker mentions “electric lights” out front of the Thirty-Ninth Street Theatre announcing “Merry Melodrama” that was The Monster, though she barely found it merry, “you get to that state where you are piteously grateful for any little thing which brings it home to you that it is only a play, after all.” I wondered for reading all this if Dorothy Parker, other critics, audience members, were naturally timid in 1922, not like crocodile-skinned moderns who could stand anything. But explanation is not so simple as that.

Note Parker's 1922 audience was essentially captive in a theatre darkened to extreme on both the stage and among seats, especially during a third act she saw as a summit of terror, what with the heroine strapped to a table and about to be dismembered by a mad surgeon, her would-be rescuer bound in an electric chair and taking repeated shocks from villainy. Consider too a black venue where ingress-egress is made difficult if not unmanageable thanks to loss of visibility save mayhem played out before you. There were also sounds heard from the dark, live sounds, not canned to safe distance by a motion-picture track (and this was before sound movies), onlookers “gnawing the arms off their seats,” as Parker put it. Nothing can duplicate the impact of an actual voice, especially one expressing fear or panic. Consider history of live performers said to electrify crowds, but not able to do so when captured on film. I drove down to watch my niece in a Playmakers rendition of Wait Until Dark, which like The Monster, staged much of action in ink blackness. What jolted us was sudden shrieks and cries from characters we could not see, feeling they might be upon us for being so close. It’s knowing these people are actually there, not at safe remove of projected images. Here is what would give live spook shows their punch, also “haunted houses” at fairs and Harvest fests. The “for real” as opposed to “It’s Only A Movie.”

The Monster
impacts less on film. Had Dorothy Parker gone, she may well have panned it. Yet critics did speak well of The Monster, several saying it topped the play. We care, if at all, because Lon Chaney is the mad “Doctor” Ziska who has taken over a lunatic asylum and cast all of staff into on-site dungeons. Comic relief, much supplied by Johnny Arthur, weighs heavy upon expectation that Chaney will be the pivot point. Fact he isn’t causes resentment toward The Monster, plus our conviction that any chiller directed by Roland West should be way better than this. I saw The Monster a first-time years ago and did fast-forward to Chaney stuff, annoyed to distraction by Johnny Arthur. Reading the Dorothy Parker review pointed up values in the source material I had not considered, The Monster an early source for much that would shape scaring for years to come. So why does undercut of those scares alienate us now? A fan magazine review of The Monster (at right) hints at attitudes of the day, and why laughs were a needed leveler, saying that “mystery executed to the tune of comedy” is “the only way to treat this subject so as not to make it appear ridiculous.” So horror undiluted is, at least was, ridiculous? Was there risk of the audience laughing at proposed thrills not already tempered by laughter? Such policy may explain a lot of what we would see in chillers to come, Doctor X an example many of us have lately enjoyed. Who supplies the comic relief makes a difference, my vote securely with a Lee Tracy, or Glenda Farrell (in Mystery of the Wax Museum), as opposed to less appealing Johnny Arthur in The Monster.

Merry Melodrama was indeed what they wanted, what, in fact, they insisted upon. Remember how 1925’s Phantom of the Opera went back to drawing boards for being unrelievedly horrifying? Comedy was the solution in part, Snitz Edwards a supplier of it. We get him willing or not, a Phantom unexpurgated mere stuff of dreams, Snitz a forever-anchor to show how habit and expectation differed in 1925, a same year The Monster came out. Criticism goes hardest today on comics who were brought in to wet fuses, Johnny Arthur an affront to the Chaney we are there to see, getting way more screen time, even coming to a rescue which will upturn all of henchmen plus Chaney as head threat. The Monster seems an encore of Sherlock, Jr., which it does resemble, even if Johnny Arthur makes a tepid substitute for Buster Keaton. Arthur would continue in comedy, fussy types once sound came, his grip of posterity derived from being ineffectual father to Our Gangers Darla and/or Spanky for mid-to-late 30’s Hal Roach. There was a column in the old Classic Film Collector penned by a “Don Marlowe,” who claimed he was a member of Our Gang. Marlowe wrote, around 1969 as I recall, that Johnny Arthur ended up washing dishes at a hash house of undisclosed locale. For me, this was early insight into how the mighty could fall. Not sure as to accuracy however, as Marlowe was known to tell whoppers. Whatever truth or not of his kitchen policing, Arthur did, by most accounts, finish up destitute in 1951, fated to an unmarked grave at age 68.

Swat That Snitz For Befouling Our Precious Phantom!

The Monster
's house alone is reward for watching. Much like what was designed for the stage no doubt, but here are multiple levels gotten at by retreat or pursuit, advantage had by film over live staging. Night business was shot after sundown on insistence of Roland West, him devising a wire-walk, done in dark and during an electric storm, putting plentiful thrill in thrill comedy. Best way to enjoy The Monster is through eyes of those there in 1925, or 1922 if lucky enough to attend the play. Chaney gets very much into the spirit of fun, less burdened by make-up, thus more his own face than those thousand others, which he uses not to mock his menace, but to revel in exaggeration of it. Complaint I won’t argue with is not enough Chaney, absent for that first half-hour, gone again till the forty-five-minute mark, getting stride for a third act’s wow and final dispatch. His mad lab anticipates what varied Doctor Neff’s of traveling magic-and-excitation put up, then took down, from matinee stages. Chaney with scalpel hovering over a bound victim, her captive swain voltage-seated and fit with a metal bowl cap, evokes not only live spook rallies to come, but Bride of the Monster, which I’d like to think was inspired by The Monster, save fact that Ed Wood was but one-year-old when the latter came out in 1925. Chaney look and gestures are like Hjalmar Poelzig arrived early. Surely The Monster was at least partial model for Boris Karloff’s performance in The Black Cat. Things Chaney does with his hands are a delight across all his work, used here to humorously flamboyant effect. Wonder what he could have done with the Pretorius part in Bride of Frankenstein. I’ll not go further ‘long those lines, lest we recreate virtually all of 30’s horror in Lon’s image.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Humor Again Was The Charm

More of Smart-Written Movies

Old film doubters carp about “formula” as if (1) that were a bad thing, and (2) we have thankfully graduated from it. But stories are yet told in same ways, ask any caveman, means by which they get told where difference lies. As with so many things, it’s not the what, but the how. Writers stood out by making how seem like fresh what. “A New Kind of Western” was never really that, any more than “A Different Sort of Love Story” could be. The situations were going to be an essential same, dialogue or visuals performing rescue from ruts. What would Shane have been if filmed at Corriganville, or All About Eve if told by Columbia on B backstage terms, Ann Miller seizing spotlights from Evelyn Keyes. I like commonplace narrative reborn by writing that first accepts reality that nothing truly new is likely to surface after a thousand years of storytelling. It can seem so, however, through fresh approach, one familiar, but not told before so briskly. Clever enough words can turn wiltiest flowers back toward the sun. For sample --- we could cite dozens just by what gets watched most often --- Cry Danger, a noir to wait years being exalted, finally so thanks to restoration and delighted surprise at how nimbly it spun a familiar web. Even ads were hep to the difference --- “Terrific thrill and excitement plus the smartest dialogue you ever heard!” Distinction lay in that plus column, Cry Danger joining many that are favorites less for what we see than words we hear.

Smart dialogue really means witty, “getting” the joke so we can be in-the-know like Dick Powell. Great stars were born, at least in talkies, by things they said raising them above awkward way the rest of us communicate. We like it because maybe by trying harder, a state of Powell grace can be achieved. And don’t stop with him for a role model, add Cagney, Joan Blondell, Bogart, Glenda Farrell, certainly all who worked at precode and freer speech in movies than we have enjoyed since. Best writing was less to convey insight than to be funny. Leave perspicacity to poetry and literature. Star vehicles, the best ones, were essentially comedy, more ribald the better. If Jim Cagney as a titular Picture Snatcher sets out to photograph a woman being executed (camera taped to his leg), then let him succeed to accompany of laughter and sharp riposte to those who would deter him. Stars were ultra-goal-oriented, plus agile in the getting, resistance reliably overcome by wordplay. William Powell seldom struck a blow or shot anyone, save verbally. Women suffered briefer, if at all, than would be a later-30’s case. Kay Francis pre-and-post Code enforcement amounts to two entirely different actresses, humor bled out to leave she and sisterhood chalk white. Men gave up as much, Cagney’s a resort to service action or efforts on the side of law. Still it was comedy these stars would essentially play. Clark Gable could fret over knee breeches and pigtails he’d be obliged to wear in Mutiny on the Bounty, but what worried him more was seriousness of the venture, a parting from more topical, light-foot way.

“Knowing the score” was how heroes led, at least kept abreast of all comers, flipping the Golden Rule to do the other guy before he did you. Go-getters took life lessons from an ongoing Depression. Writers taught by the hard school spoke through scrappers that reflected their world, or word, view. Smart Set prose that began with East Coast magazines was vulgarized to fit raffish cut of players who spoke to a commonest audience. They could be plain folk, but not dumb folk, bright, but not cerebral. Tough guys who were also intellectual ended badly, Wolf Larsen, Doc Holliday, too educated for their own survival. Restless writers peppered street talk with epigrams enough to make us wonder if screen hustlers graduated Yale before embracing their disrepute. Writers and those they wrote for could show their smarts, but not to extent of pitching a joke over anyone’s head. The winners made average Joe-Janes laugh and feel good about themselves. Years ago, early 80’s I think, Dan Mercer and I saw North By Northwest at a revival in Charlotte. Driving back, we speculated on why it worked so well. He said part of the secret was crediting the audience for quick-wit and sophistication by giving them the best of both, letting us in on sly jokes, talked up to, rather than down. Viewers verily burst with good will for movies that treat them so.

People generally prefer movies to “talk like we talk,” which was what made period settings a tough sled. Modern vernacular was more than ingrained … radio, vaudeville, advertising in or out of popular magazines … all taught a language way apart from what forebears knew. Few understood how corrupted we were by slang, fewer willing to get along without it. So far as most figured, those of gone centuries spo
ke a foreign tongue, wore peculiar clothes in the bargain. Films past-set had to be disguised for ads and publicity. Gentleman Jim, Devotion, lots more, were sold false and hoped to be good enough so customers would not revolt once put wise. Note ads, Errol as Jim with signature mustache (Corbett didn't have one, and neither does Flynn playing him), while Alexis Smith sports distinctly 40's headdress. Devotion, a screen bio of the Bronte sisters, is even farther off base as advertised. Writers were artful for making the past seem like now, long as it wasn’t too far past. A best way to accomplish that was with humor. Gentleman Jim had that by acres, plus Errol Flynn 40’s agile midst 90’s custom, as though any of us might travel back and live on our own terms rather than theirs. San Francisco in 1936 waved a similar wand over 1906 run-up to the quake, a lapse of only thirty years between that event and times radically changed during the interim (no radio, and films but barely born when San Francisco took place). How could such primitivism sustain if not for vitality Clark Gable stood for, his “Blackie Norton” a one-of-us to counter otherness of a vanished era. Those able-enough could get away with extreme period so long as wit narrowed the gulf. Look to George Arliss for best application of this, laughing up lace sleeves at anyone who said his history could not latter-day please. Again, it was smart writing to the rescue.

Film writers were notoriously undervalued. Many got grief barely assuaged by money they could never have realized elsewhere. Average weekly pay at Warners was $650 (says Here’s Looking At You, Kid, by James R. Silke). Prominent or proven scribes could reach $1,250 to $1,750. All stayed humble for belief they wrote on sand, tides forever going out with films here today, gone from theatres tomorrow. What then did it matter if you and three other guys got credit for finished work? Trafficking in what was at most ephemeral enabled “detachment” as Walter Reisch recalled, dialogue writers flavoring someone else’s original story “unmolested by their own vanity.” (Backstory 2, edited by Pat McGilligan) A given star vehicle may start out solemn, but always end breezy, that understood to be a public’s preference. Many at tail end of the writing process were fundamentally gag men and knew it. Wiser ones enjoyed the ride, leaving prestige to those who would starve for art.

And what did prestige add up to in posterity’s long run? Ultimate accolade was for novelists who sold in print, but real money came with a movie sale, from which point those faceless but well paid gag men livened up the serious writer’s stuff to make it palatable. Same with celebrated plays. Many reviewing films adapted from these declared them improved by the stage-to-screen jump. Experienced studio scribes saw novels and plays as rawest material from which to derive something that would entertain. Agatha Christie acknowledged Billy Wilder’s enhance of Witness For The Prosecution, his humor a godsend her source effort lacked. Does “literature” for the screen survive better than a same put between covers? I’ve been reading Edmund Wilson, his book reviewing more pans than puff, many cows I thought sacred put to the slaughter. Two for instance: Louis Bromfield and William Saroyan. I took for years snob word that these, among noted novelists and playwrights, were settled superior to whoever wrote for films. Wilson as chef of humble pie made me realize no one of his period was beyond criticism, so then I must ask who reads these authors today? How much of popular literature from the 30’s and 40’s remains in print, is enjoyed by moderns? Bromfield’s name I recognize from credits on The Rains Came and Mrs. Parkington, Saroyan means The Human Comedy to me, and not much else, although he did win a Pulitzer Prize in 1940 (plus $1000 cash) for The Time of Your Life, infamous among film folk as a major Cagney misstep of 1948. Query to all: Have more in a last thirty years seen The Rains Came, Mrs. Parkington, The Human Comedy, than probed the books? (Saroyan wrote a novel based on his screenplay for The Human Comedy) I’ll put it simpler: Has anyone here read even one of these?

H’wood writers were made to feel small beside literary lions, whatever differences of income. Deepest sting was generous money given screen scribes, which many felt their punk art did not merit. Most were content to take the cash and run. I’d like to think someone walked up to William Bowers after Cry Danger to congratulate him for the “Smartest Dialogue You Ever Heard!,” chances better they didn't. Ones who could truly sweeten a script had to be rare. Studio confinement, eight hours expected on site and typing, made pranks a pastime, these to compensate for what writers knew was wage slavery. Insiders portrayed themselves as madcap purveyors of pap (see Boy Meets Girl), but there was risk in telling your public they were buying stenchy goods. What if customers took talent on their caustic word and stopped going to movies? Best to make do with your velvet trap and apply talent to betterment of tales told endlessly before. Studio films were genre-focused, had to be to support release schedules of one or more features per week. Best way to separate stock from sameness was humor, expected or not, better in fact where unexpected.

We didn’t figure horror films to amuse us, but often they did, especially where James Whale and his writers drove. I now watch The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man for laughs, a bravo in my book, as other chillers, after all, truly chill but once. Whale’s are gifts to keep on giving. Observe what Vincent Price did for so-called horror films from the 50’s on, he and hep writers good-natured subverters of a genre taken seriously long enough. Westerns were livened by humor, it lifted onus of cliches. For every once I’d watch The Ox-Bow Incident, Burt Kennedy’s Renown westerns directed by Budd Boetticher will unspool a half-dozen times. I confess to never having seen The Ox-Bow Incident, less willing by the day to be so bummed. Noir we assume to be serious, but the best of it really isn’t. His Kind of Woman was again on deck for me recent, as often is The Big Clock, ubiquitous Cry Danger, each because they delight me, “dark” content letting in good-humored sun. Hitchcock was liked best when he amused most. Six of his were brought back in 1983, Rear Window the only sure bet, because it was essentially funny. So is Psycho for that matter, Norman and his candy corn forever! I bet most in 1959 saw North By Northwest as a rescue from Vertigo and worry that Hitchcock had lost his light touch. Too bad Marnie came along later to reassert the heaviness. Maybe Hitchcock needed gag men as did big studio colleagues. There are potholes to auteuring, loss of fun an oft-casualty.

That's The Spirit! as Above-Captured by WB Blue-Streak They Drive By Night

Were I to pick a Blue-Streak, a handshake, that is, between melodrama (normally a flag to fun seekers) and ribaldry, it would be a Warner cycle, rewarding if brief, that ran from 1939 into the early 40’s, an engine stoked by talent considerable when separate, unbeatable where combined. On their face actioners The Roaring Twenties, Torrid Zone, They Drive By Night, and Manpower strike me as ideal matings between tension and laughter. Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay wrote them, Mark Hellinger associate-produced under Hal Wallis as executive producer, and Raoul Walsh directed three of the four. A common thread among these was innate story sense, an instinct for what a mass audience would enjoy. Even where narrative was cobbled from same yarns told before, the case with majority here, it was atypical telling that paid. Any cycle, however received at a start, plays out eventually, as would this as participants scattered, Hellinger to independent producing, Wallis to Paramount’s shingle, Wald also to produce, Macaulay continuing as a writer to maintain Blue-Streak spirit (Across The Pacific, Captains of the Clouds). These men as a group had much to do with establishing a Warner formula for action salted with comedy, a pattern influencing most genres (war and Desperate Journey, gangsters with All Through The Night, westerns and San Antonio), this but part basis for Warners being label I gravitate to where picking an evening’s relaxation.

CODY’S COAT --- THE EARLY YEARS --- This won’t make any headlines, is best placed under category of minor discoveries, but will settle at least whatever lingering inquiry there might be regarding Cody Jarrett’s overcoat, a concern to few admittedly, some who'd frequent Greenbriar perhaps. Was digging among stills for Boy Meets Girl when I found the one shown here. Wait, I know that overcoat! It belongs to Cody! Would like to think I don’t obsess to excess over articles of clothing, but something about that raiment always appealed to me, it being critical element to White Heat’s cold cabin scene where Cody dons it through much of an opening reel and what to my mind are among best portions of the movie. The coat is there when Cody slugs a henchman for using the car radio (If that battery is dead, it’ll have company), collapses onto Ma’s lap with a headache, and parries wife Verna’s suggestion that they double-cross the gang and keep all of stolen money for themselves. I don’t generally respond to costuming so acutely, this an exception … could it be I covet Cody’s coat, would want one just like it? I admit to similar emotion re Carl Denham’s King Kong wrap, enjoying always how he bundles himself into it before going in search of “a girl for my picture.” Clothes really made the men in those days.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Chaplin Heats Up For a 30's Revive

Where Right Music Makes Them Funnier

Chaplin did twelve comedies for Mutual during 1916-17. They are, as a group, the best things he made. I forget how many iterations have gone through my hands, starting with 8mm, to 16, video, laser, DVD, more DVD, then Blu-Ray, Regions One, then Two. That is how high I regard them. Silent comedy in its day, and for revivals after, aimed at “Happy Times and Jolly Moments” (to cite a title of one clip compilation), music a must to enhance mood whether live or canned on a track. Popular tunes might be used, or “old-timey” piano tracking salted with stingers for each fall, crash, shot, bark. Same tricks applied to cartoons were used also to juice live action bereft of talk. Hal Roach applied music-effects to comedies soon as he practically could, via synchronized discs. Just watch ’28-29 releases Habeas Corpus, We Faw Down, Liberty, That’s My Wife, other Laurel-Hardys that used hits of the day to liven backdrop. Slapstick seems unearthly where no sound comes with it. The Mutuals were less recognized classics than simple sure things to please a crowd, including ones gathered well after sound took over. Independent producer and former exhibitor Amadee Van Beuren found he could sell these comedies as well as if new … they were still that funny … more so with V for vigor scores he commissioned from hot jazz makers Gene Rodemich and Winston Sharples. Van Beuren rolled dice in buying six of the twelve Mutual shorts at $10K apiece, guessing that test screenings would pave way toward RKO agreeing to distribute the group, plus remaining half-dozen should initial ones click, which they assuredly did.

Idea was to challenge contagion of double features by making shorts uniquely attractive, theatres using enough one and two-reelers to fill much of time a second full-length would run. Chaplin had stayed a meaningful name in short subjects even as his current policy was features. There was him, then all the rest, not a wonder he was bowed to as master of all slapstick surveyed. Press beyond trades lauded Chaplin regular, one NY sheet calling for return “of those old custard pie throwing pictures that Chaplin used to be seen in.” Never mind he seldom had thrown pies, perception being all, as one exhib in Provincetown, RI found when A Dog’s Life showed “plenty of life” for a 1931 encore (the short dated to 1918). Rurals used Chaplin where he could prop up weak sisters, never mind how far back footage went. Van Beuren knew all this and so felt his investment a safe one. Silent comedy apart from Chaplin was less sure. I don’t know a group other than his Mutuals revived so prominently once talk came. Did patrons miss Lloyd, Keaton, Langdon, mutely tossing their pies? Never mind, as few seemed willing to gamble on names other than Chaplin.

A test for Easy Street in September 1932 put it with minor accompany of Radio Patrol, a Universal programmer no one expected to leap fences, so credit, or blame, would rest with the comedy. Old-school promotion was used, Chaplin lookalikes sought among attending kids, a best resembler in receipt of “a fine saddle horse” (but what would Mom say when he/she rode the nag home?). Appeal having been proven saw “all RKO circuit houses” getting Easy Street with The Phantom of Crestwood, a nice mood switch from slapstick to spine-tingling. Showmen were happy, as in very. The Mutuals, all twelve, ran from fall 1932 into 1934. Here was “Chaplinitis” again, others sniffing money from other of the comic's residue, getting what they could of even older Keystone and Essanay comedies he had made, these rolled out through the 30’s and well after, bunched by however many a theatre could want. So what if they played primitive, so long as tricked out with music, any music, be it stock, bought, or improvised. Call them Parades, A Night With ..., Laff Shows. Charlie was still King, “Wonderful, Lovable, Laughable.” The man himself was even known to attend these paste-ups and laugh the loudest.

The Mutuals modernly look better --- never so vivid as now --- but freewheel is largely out of their music (a lot of current scores still are plenty good however). I was sent a couple sets with Van Beuren tracks (ported from old lasers and/or analog transfers), having not experienced them for years. It was like a plate of Mexican jump beans. So what is “appropriate” accompany for these? Give me VB vitamins from here on. I played The Cure A-B between jazzed-up ’32 and one of the Blu-Ray treatments … no contest, one hot, the other a chill. Restored-to-the-sky falls to earth where music belongs less to Chaplin than Caligari. The Van Beurens were scored to zip-speed of 24 frames-per-second, standard sound projection, thus Charlie at a dead run while accompany tries to stay ahead of him. Tracks were recorded on the east coast, musicians hired out of bands a block, or subway, distant. It is said Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, among later-prominent others, performed for the Chaplins, no doubt glad to get the work. Who knows how fast frames are suppose to pass through apertures? Cameras were cranked by hand, so scratch hope of uniformity. Same with projectors giving patronage a bum’s rush where shows ran overtime and for that reason or other you had to clear the house. With editing so rapid-fire as movies practice today (heck, it’s been that way for twenty years), does Chaplin at 24 fps seem too fast? --- I mean to a modern audience, not fossils wanting to slow silent shows down. Think those raised on video games push brakes? Complaining that they should reveals more about us than them.

For everyone who watches a silent film, there are that many different notions of how to present them. I’ve done talkless shows more often wrong than right. A local art guild invited me and my Eumig 8mm projector to a 1972 gathering, my choice for delectation The General. The Eumig offered two speeds, 18 and 24 frames-per-second. I was green enough to assume all silent movies ran properly at 18, while talkies went 24. The show was agony, my advantage in projecting the fact I did not have to face the audience and observe their suffering, it being dark enough not to catch eye of walkouts. Did I learn from the experience? Evidently not, for less than a year later I inflicted Phantom of the Opera upon fellow collegiates who at least had recourse of that evening’s BYOB policy. Not a few would ask Why do you watch these? At times I found it hard to answer. It took home video to make latter-day silent movie presentations idiot-proof.

Music was for many as much an issue as speed. What worked best? An audience would realize quick what didn’t; that turned lots off silents barely in. I used to play Chopin against all my 8mm, and yes, sometimes it was against, Etudes lagging always behind Keystone chases. How many of us had record libraries from which to select ideal mood? Moon Mullins used a 78 of calliope music to go with his, no matter what silent he showed. It was easier then to accept aural anomalies, for how often did we get opportunity to view pre-talk? No two theatres accompanied the same when Chaplin’s Mutuals were new, the man or woman at keyboards having it their way (did cue sheets go out with these comedies? I’ve not seen any). Some theatres drew patrons on the reputation of who provided music, local stars born by such means. Imagine getting applause all day, every day, from neighbors who came as much to hear you as watch movies. I had a prodigy aunt who accompanied 20’s shows when she was still a kid. Here was practical reason for youngsters to take piano lessons. Work your way up to playing for Charlie Chaplin … now there’s motivation to learn.

So what was initial accompany for Mutuals in 1916-17 --- Fox Trots, the Bunny Hug, Grizzly Bear, other fad tunes of the time? You wonder if anyone still digs out yellowed song sheets to tee off Easy Street or The Rink with what was popular over a hundred years ago. Imagine too how many music styles have escorted Chaplin to parties since. Van Bueren’s jazz, “hot” before it later became “swing,” seems ideal to my ears. These scores staked an early 30’s claim on films otherwise elderly. Chaplin's Mutual comedies were thus renewed, would "belong" thanks to music that gave them fresh voice for those who remembered plus ones arriving new to the Chaplin experience, a fusion of energetic “now” wedded to still enjoyed “then.” Maybe some at the time deplored such an update, but for most I suspect it more
than pleased. And for us, what’s the difference between Bunny Hugs and Hot Jazz? Chaplin’s comedy was timeless, stayed that way … he rises even above mournful modern scores. Dizzying are rebirths the Mutual lot has had. So many. Public domain status will do that. Footage found here, lost there, intertitles as they initially were, or faked to look that way, “Slo-mo” applied to fury of those who want Charlie to pick up his pace (reverence overkill?). For all of time kid-watching, I could have paved four more lanes to Winston-Salem, given application to asphalt rather than apertures. The game now, or call it obsession, is to achieve state of Mutual grace, but where is consensus as to that? Find me two, let alone more, in Mutual harmony.

Many thanks to Scott MacGillivray, who made this column possible. For further info re the Chaplin Mutual series, consult Michael Hayde's definitive account, Chaplin's Vintage Year, a great read, as are all books Hayde has written. 

Monday, April 05, 2021

WB Leads a Pigskin Parade


When College Ball Captivated Us All

The role of Pat O'Brien's career. He'd be asked about this one all the way to the end, sport buffs regarding the biopic as almost a religious totem. Football as embodiment of the American spirit was never so keyed as here. Part of that was gear-up to coming war, Rockne's big speech about grid standing-in for needed combat among male youth being no coincidence. Here was training for more than mere whipping of opposer teams, stakes having widened to an arena that was worldwide and poised to boil over. These boys would soon enough trade leather helmets for steel ones. Rockne as presented by Warners personified preparedness in addition to character and sportsmanship. A screen bio could not have been better timed. There was initial effort to have James Cagney play him, but neither the Rocknes nor Notre Dame administrators liked the idea of a badman playing such a good man, so scotch went that proposal. O'Brien worked up the mannerisms and speech patterns, trying hard to put over singularity of a persona many remembered to last detail. As Rockne had a sort of Bull Montana look, so too would Pat with help of facial appliance. Were Knute Rockne --- All American made ten years later, they probably wouldn't have gone to such length toward authenticity.

Rockne-devised plays are tendered as revolutionary to the game. Did he really invent the forward pass? My knowing nothing about football doesn't help, so why do movies about the sport appeal more as I get older? Maybe it's regret for not having embraced it sooner, but not to extent of playing. I hear guys can get hurt doing that. Notable names besides Rockne are on and off quick. No sooner do we know Ronald Reagan's George Gipp than he's breathing his last, but you could hardly tell Rockne's story without Gipp. Don't know if Gipp's deathbed speech was actual, or Rockne's repeating it later. Anyhow, it works from sentiment angle. There's "scandal" for third-act suspense, upon which no suspense hangs as we know Knute would never have paid off his players or rigged their academic sheets. This was all-the-way white rinse with the Rockne family looking on, not unlike what Universal dealt when it told the Glenn Miller Story in 1954. If there was a dark side to this man, certainly we get none of it here.

There's a good sense of the coach having to renew his brand every three years as star athletes graduate. The pressure to keep winning must indeed have been enormous. Rockne thinks at one point he's all washed up for losing just one match, a reaction typical, I'd guess, of any coach who got out-scored. Warners wanted to widen appeal of Knute Rockne --- All American by making it as much about America as land of opportunity for immigrants seeking upward mobility, and that's thrust of at least an opening reel where we meet Knute and Norwegian family back in the old country. Patriotic music accompanies all this. America as ultimate dreamscape would be defended with arms soon enough. Toward Rockne as an almost sacred figure came priestly O'Brien whose public image was pristine as reverse-collar parts he played in major hit Angels With Dirty Faces and more recent, and even bigger, The Fighting 69th. In a long run, he was probably the better choice for this role over Cagney, it being easier to subsume the O'Brien personality in deference to legend and icon that was Knute Rockne.

Warners' campaign was their customary massive for the time. Knute Rockne --- All American was culmination of far-flung premiering that dated back to 42nd Street and continued through to junket opens for Dodge City and The Fighting 69th. War would curb some of such extravagance, but for now, skies were the limit so far as making events of these bows. Knute Rockne --- All American got an Indiana launch and proclamation from the governor of that state of "Knute Rockne Week" to coincide with a star-studded premiere. Such occasion was great for local economy as train-loads rolled through and spent heavy along the way. Tens of thousands lining streets would after all get hungry and need lodging. Since when had Indiana merchants and tradesmen had it so good? South Bend's three theatres were booked and sold out. O'Brien pal Jim Cagney came along to personal appear, with Bob Hope acting as M.C.

Famous coaches who'd known Rockne appeared in, and were saluted by, the film, bringing out hordes who had worked with these and entire student bodies besides. It was a collegiate round robin and word-of-mouth snowball, the kind you couldn't buy no matter the ads placed or dollars put forth. Focal point for promotion was Notre Dame, where Rockne hung his helmet for the whole of a coaching career and where his name was revered above all others. Warners sent addresses of every alumni association to showmen across the country, goal being for each to make contact and have clubs attend en masse. Schools were targeted with tie-in rallies, proms, and the inevitable goal-kicking contests.

WB hedged bets by holding costs down to $646K. Domestic rentals were a gratifying $1.5 million, but foreign was an expected bust --- $128K --- as what did they care about our colleges or football? The Rockne story with Cagney would indeed have done better, but then Warners would have been obliged to spend more making it, thus a more-less dog fall in the end. The thing was about football, after all, and that wasn't stuff of widest audience appeal. TV prints of Knute Rockne --- All American were for years truncated because of dialogue that had to be taken out, including the "Gipper" speech. Controversy began with a radio scribe who sued Warners years before, and they had failed to settle in terms of TV use of disputed footage. It's only been recent that vital stuff has been put back to make Knute Rockne --- All American at last play as it did in 1940. TCM runs a nice HD transfer of the complete version.
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