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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.


Blogger DBenson said...

Found myself thinking of Bugs Bunny, more highly regarded than Tom and Jerry (then as well as now?) because Bugs delivers attitude along with the slapstick. In the glory days T&J toons were more lushly animated and the gags were solid, but Bugs always KNEW he was in a throwaway cartoon and told us so while cheerfully messing with less aware antagonists.

Tom and Jerry had speed and violence, but were mute (and talking characters usually limited themselves to exposition). Disney's characters spoke when they had to, refusing to depend on funny words (a too-serious narrator or overexcited sports announcer might feature, but mainly to underscore visual slapstick). Today we view them with warm nostalgia, and with admiration for the impressive craftsmanship; when we laugh we're almost surprised.

That wise guy sensibility and outrageousness made the Loony Tunes enduringly funnier (and likewise Tex Avery's work at MGM). Tom and Jerry are arguably more universal in their pantomime, and Disney toons are often intentionally timeless. But even with all the now-inexplicable references, it's the Loony Tunes still play like gangbusters.


Also thinking about how many of the best comedies are built on serious foundations. Vehicles for star comics -- Bob Hope, Bud and Lou, Danny Kaye -- can come close to being serious war pictures, whodunits and even swashbucklers but for the comedians reacting to the mayhem. It's not a universal rule. Slightly fantastical folk like Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and even W.C. Fields work best when the stakes are no higher than resolving a trivial romance. But "Ninotchka", for all its froth, plays off of the reality of the Soviet Union, while "The Apartment" is possibly the darkest romcom ever.

4:55 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Dialogue has always sucked me into a movie.

Two of my favorites...DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE BIG SLEEP.

Back in February, I watched each of them three times in one week.

And I sometimes listen to them without turning on the projector lamp.

7:44 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

I didn't realize it as a kid, but I think Looney Tunes get a big boost from the background music available from the Warners' catalog. I was watching 'Shipmates Forever' for the first time not too long ago and the opening credits conjured up Bugs and Daffy involved in some nautical mischief.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I never got around to "The Ox-Bow Incident" until a few years ago, for reasons similar to yours. It's a fine movie, with its saving grace being a 75-minute running time, so that you don't feel depressed too long.

Off-topic: was there any movie from the '30s & '40s that didn't have one publicity still featuring the leads walking arm in arm toward the camera like they were in a musical?

Even more off-topic: the restored Blu-ray of "Dr. X" also has the black & white version which was filmed separately from the Technicolor print. Any reason why Warners would shoot it twice instead of just releasing a b&w print of the original to certain markets?

9:33 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Fine article, and the comments are good, too.

I have not read any of the source novels for "The Rains Came", "Mrs. Parkington", nor "The Human Comedy"; in fact, I've not seen any of those films, either, even though I do find the latter two among some DVDs that came to me as a legacy from a late elderly relation whose own immediate family had, and have, no interest whatsoever in "antique movies", as they call ANY movie dating from before their own lifetimes; and so, this plastic bin of old movie DVDs and videotapes eventually made it to me, known by them to watch "antique" movies from time to time - and I have to say the receipt of that bin made for an unexpected and pleasant surprise.
Nor are these two the first unknown and unseen (by me) DVD movies from that source whose mention in the pages of GPS has led me to dig them out and add them to the hopper for future viewing. When combined with the resources and info here at GPS, that bin is proving to be a gift that just keeps giving!

7:01 AM  
Blogger RichardSchilling said...

As I read this I could not help but think of "screenwriter" Joe Gillis and how he essentially decides to become a gigolo rather than submitting himself to what seems like the least appreciated job on the lot in those days: screenwriter at Paramount Studios.

Of course the actual screenwriters, Wilder and Hackett, basically "diss" Paramount's films of the era when informed Norma's car was needed not for Salome but a "Betty Hutton musical" if what could be more awful?

8:05 PM  
Blogger daveboz said...

Not a "diss", just common sense. How would a car fit into Salomé?

3:35 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

I think the way the script went, DeMille's office needed the car for a film. But Norma heard "DeMille" and assumed he was going to film SALOME.

8:49 AM  

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