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Monday, May 31, 2021

Gold Is Where Average Viewers Find It


Critics --- Get To Know Your Audience!

What more useless than critic reviews the product of screening rooms where company was other critics, films they saw not yet put before a retail public. These I skip in favor of notices the fruit of crowded view, where a Mordaunt Hall, Frank Nugent, or James Agee bore witness to crowds lit up by movies they were not paid to evaluate, but themselves paid to enjoy. Plain folk reactions often guided critics as to how they should react. How any film was received by its first-run audience was most valuable data any observer could record. Fans memorialized such events in scrapbooks, while pro scribes who were most perceptive incorporated live and spontaneous response into columns they wrote. Mordaunt Hall did so in 1925 when Valentino came to Broadway’s Mark-Strand with The Eagle, Hall’s reporting a clean break from herds reviewing the film but none of context surrounding it. Frank Nugent found himself hip-deep in hepsters on January 4, 1939 when he settled at the Paramount to ostensibly review Zaza, a Claudette Colbert drama-comedy few cared hoots about, for they were there to see Benny Goodman and his Boys play live on stage. Nugent gave up notion of critiquing Zaza to instead eulogize said hapless non-attraction “rude enough … to disturb the chatter, the hand-clapping, and the rhythmic foot-stamping of an audience that was impatient for Benny Goodman’s orchestra to take the Paramount’s stage again.” Sad was fate of any film backing white hot stage accompany, none so steamy as Goodman at ‘39 zenith of popularity.

Quote Nugent: “Key scenes (of Zaza) were greeted by chants of “We want Benny! We want Benny!” Colbert and company were “received coldly,” love scenes prompting “audience wits (who) took it upon themselves to shout advise, most of it unprintable,” result being “Mr.Goodman and his adolescent following had the Paramount all to themselves … Zaza and its would-be reviewers were simply interlopers.” Nugent was obviously a good sport, realizing as any critic should that the profile of any film is tied up in its reception by initial audiences. No movie played in a vacuum, even if current circumstance suggests they do, and will, what with streaming the increased way to go. Anyone thinking they know the Val Lewtons and Curse of the Cat People should read a remarkable notice James Agee turned in circa April 1, 1944, his having caught Curse (ideally) at Arthur Mayer’s legendary Rialto Theatre, all-night and day retreat for seekers after screen sensation, Agee there “by pure chance” on what he referred to as “a reviewer’s holiday.” Curse of the Cat People took he and patronage by surprise, for contrary to what the title suggested, this was low-key and sensitive exploration of a child’s dream world, a seeming last of choices the Rialto mob might make. They responded warmly, “showed it in their thorough applause,” said Agee, whose review became as much an appreciation of Rialto clientele as an endorsement for Curse of the Cat People, even to a point of citing the “West Times Square” viewership as a “finest movie audience in the country,” calling them “deeply experienced” where it came to rooting out worthwhile films.

Agee lauded “infinite superiority” of Rialto watchers over what he termed “art-theater devotees --- not to mention … the quality and conduct of Museum of Modern Art film audiences,” him fed up by self-conscious art/quality seekers. So long as there was patronage like the Rialto served, “no one in Hollywood has a right to use the stupidity of the public for an alibi,” Agee maintaining there was always a ready audience for “films as decent and human” as Curse of the Cat People. Among thinking critics then, it looked like a crusade on behalf of Val Lewton and work likely to be misunderstood due to RKO merchandising and theatres appealing to low denominators. Manny Farber boosted Curse to point of comparison with The Song of Bernadette, vision-seeing Jennifer Jones’ performance left wanting beside that of little Ann Carter, whose similar sightings were for Farber more effective and believable. Something about Lewton drew renegade reviewers. They saw how he upturned Hollywood formula from basement level at RKO, a model for those who thought for themselves in an industry largely forbidding step off a chalk line. To like Lewton was to be of his independent stripe. Being fashion choice for critics was no influence, however, upon trade appraisal concerned only by whether product pulled B.O. weight, Curse of the Cat People a distinct letdown by their reckoning.

Those on the inside knew getting customers on board with art mislabeled as horror was a higher hill than quick in-and-out theatres could climb. What two-day run built word-of-mouth even where latter was enthusiastic? Trades figured Curse of the Cat People too elegant for anyone’s good, let alone teens who were “practically the entire patronage” for chill bills where Curse typically placed, consensus opinion as expressed by Indianapolis manager of the Lyric Theatre, Frank Paul. Keep selling simple was not just a best, but an only way to go where hundreds of features passed through your doors per year. No time to cultivate even a most exquisite rose; let uptown critics pluck these at leisure and maybe send gem seekers your way. This was real world of management trying to mollify cat people fans asking why they didn’t get cat people in this movie. Based on such a title, who'd blame them? Trade reviews could be cruel, but they spoke to truth of marketing. “Mediocre” said The Motion Picture Herald and Harrison’s Reports, “unique horror of the original is not recaptured,” added the Herald, Harrison of the opinion Curse “fails to carry the punch” of previous Cat People. Motion Picture Daily warned against drawing parallels with the 1942 chiller, lest fans feel “defrauded,” Curse less a shocker than “a fanciful tale for children.” A real concern was exhibitor attempts to link Curse with Cat People, for that matter any horror, patrons most likely to be alienated once wise to what for them was a ruse. Merit of any film was secondary to its sales potential, trades there to pitch for … or warn against … all to arrive at market. Anything falsely advertised was better avoided. Why invite complaint with horror that was anything but horrific?

Curse of the Cat People
stood its Rialto ground for two weeks, where, like most of their attractions, it played as a single. Manager/owner Arthur Mayer (showman colleagues the Brandts had a 25% Rialto interest) kidded his status as “The Merchant of Menace,” fact being virtually all his attractions were NY first-runs, not of highest profile perhaps, but a banquet spread before passerbys lured by Rialto front promotion and wild stunts to sell action/thrill subjects Mayer cleaved to. Curse of the Cat People collected $12K a first week, and so held for a second, which took $8K. Previous tenant Calling Dr. Death, from Universal, merited a three-week stay, arriving just after Return of the Vampire, these typical of product the Rialto played. Mayer and ad-designer, entrance-decorator George Hoffman out-circussed the circus, except Rialto fairground stayed open all night, two entrances from the street plus access from a subway platform beneath the theatre. This was useful for school truants, errant husbands, or whoever was on the run from authority, downstairs a quick getaway to departing trains should anyone come through the front looking for you. Gunshots were commonplace amidst dark Rialto trappings. Mayer’s son acquired usher skills in part by advising amorous couples that they might enjoy greater privacy by retiring to coital confines of the Rialto’s less populace balcony, for which Dad gave him a raise for tact and ingenuity. This was before Mayer tore down the old Rialto, which had begun as Hammerstein’s Victoria, once home to the “Flying Appletons” of Portrait of Jennie fame. The space tumbled from 1,960 seats to 600, sans balcony, part of ultra-streamlining Mayer meant to apply now that ongoing Depression had Broadway by show throats.

Above Two Images of the Rialto in Earlier Incarnations 

Mayer proved himself a scrapper from early on. He had leased the Rialto from Paramount after being in their employ for years, doing publicity, taking orders. Para brass thought the Rialto washed up, a teens-era barn seldom filled. Mayer began the comeback upon leased receipt and stripped overhead to bare bones, working a deal with distributors to play second-tier product, including Universal’s, the Rialto in receipt of U’s the Music Hall did not want. One of those was The Bride of Frankenstein, which Mayer thought ideal for his mob, but the Roxy wanted it also, and Universal in a venal moment let them book it, result an aggrieved Mayer filing suit to block the engagement. Courts got involved: he wanted an injunction against Bride unveiling on Roxy ground, negotiators from warring sides burning late-night oil toward peaceful resolve. Outcome was the Roxy taking Bride of Frankenstein, the Rialto getting Werewolf of London’s premiere as salve for its pain. Such was contest over goods with exploitation promise, Mayer knowing what sold best and ready to go to the mat for it. He talked about policy … wrote witty accounts for trade chums, Terry Ramsaye at the Herald of long-stand association. Mayer was educated (Harvard), knew culture, but chose to wear it lightly, kicking highbrow notion in the pants for preferred “murder, horror, mystery, and fighting.” He (and patrons) liked comedy too, lower-brow the better. Mayer arranged a mural for Rialto walls to celebrate his “steady and sturdy clientele, primarily male.” To that strategy he applied The Lost Patrol, which other Broadway houses “passed up because it had no women in the cast.” Patrol stayed at the Rialto three weeks to packed seating, a bold stroke against ingrained theory, and it worked. Mayer’s notion that one man’s theatre should reflect his own philosophy, and adhere to it, was a sound one.

The Rialto stuck with single features but loaded up on shorts that would excite male interest, newsreels plentiful, not ones fashion-oriented (unless it was swimsuits), sport reels a best where prizefighting was focus, cartoons always a hit, short comedies so long as they were impolite. News took a spike with fresh war in the 40’s, The Marines at Tarawa a rousing extra with Curse of the Cat People, as was The Hungry Goat, a Paramount Popeye, latter a favorite for the Rialto’s kind of audience. That wall mural featured him, plus the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, along with poised daggers, mad science, vampires, a full course for Rialto diners. The theatre was first-run Gotham host to scare offerings from the mid-thirties through much of the forties. Mayer’s would also be launch pad for Laurel-Hardy feature output, the Rialto first to get Way Out West, Swiss Miss, The Flying Deuces, Air Raid Wardens, others. Super-A’s went elsewhere, for what use did Mayer have for a latest Greer Garson or Paul Muni? He chided the Music Hall for advertising “too dignified,” cursive scroll, white space, and what not. The Rialto took what was trade-known as “sluffs,” humble fare if not outright B’s the big studios generated but did not care to showcase at flagship housing. That’s how Mayer came by, and gave pride of Rialto place, to Arsene Lupin Returns, an MGM runt of 1938 litter that George Hoffman dressed up like a thrill-Vesuvius poised to erupt.

Arthur Mayer got joy from playing “bad” movies, but really, it was those bad movies he respected more than gilt-edge emptiness the lot of too many studio specials. If his offerings were so lousy, why were people so eager to come in and watch them? Mayer during 1941 singled out stuff critics did not like … The Shanghai Gesture, Hellzapoppin,’ Sundown, emphasizing how each were selling strong along Broadway. Further example from his own Rialto, The Wolf Man, spat upon by reviewers, “piled up the year’s outstanding gross” for Mayer, while celebrated Citizen Kane, down several blocks at the RKO Palace, “left most picture-goers either bored or puzzled or both.” New York critics “are too smart,” he said, Mayer summing up that “Movies are a mass art and must be judged by men and women whose pulses beat in rhythm with the heart of humanity.” So who did Mayer think he was? Just someone who had worked this business since the teens. “Most theatres have to sell 100 to 300 pictures annually. They cannot do this with under-emphasis or apology. The day that advertisers in this industry stop believing that every motion picture is the greatest of all forms of entertainment, that day we are all sunk. The day that every producer, whether he is making an A picture, a B picture, or an XYZ picture, regains that faith, that day our worst troubles are over.”

Unveiling the Rialto's Drawn-To-Ghastly-Measure Mural

Mayer thought Top Ten lists were largely for birds, lest it was ten most attended or popular among hoi-polloi he catered to. Being one who’d act on rebel impulse, and happy always to travesty taste-makers, he made annual gift of “Rialto Ten Worst,” a Yuletide thumb-to-nose for critics who took cinema too serious. Partying was fuel for Rialto staff, trades filled with recap of whatever Mayer lately celebrated. It could be the venue’s anniversary, a birthday (anybody’s), or just the help saluting their boss for being such a regular guy. Guests came from up-down Broadway-42nd, every hour Happy Hour at the Rialto, as the place never slept. Bookers, brother managers, studio folk in from the opposite coast, even stars who knew where fun was best had (Sir Cedric Hardwicke announcing “Worst” winners for 1939 at a Santa soiree). Rivals by day were common-cause revelers by night.  Wonder if critics like Agee or Farber attended a Rialto party … only if they could laugh at themselves, I suspect. Guests could get stewed and not worry about a drive home, hacks or subway mere steps or stagger away. The working show world was a closest of any fraternity because these people ate and slept their trade, yes, drank it too. Selling dreams round clocks was way of life that once engaged, never was parted from. Arthur Mayer stayed a biz course through exhibition, distribution (Euro imports), production (documentaries), consultation (remember his supervising Freud events in 1963?), a memoir (Merely Colossal), plus what was for many a first book on movies, called The Movies, co-written with Richard Griffith. The Rialto, sold by Mayer in 1948 to Brandt interests, demolished since, thrives among annals of splendid showmanship. Best ballyhoo a film could get was got just for opening there, truly a portal to then-viewing paradise. Mayer himself lived ninety-five years, till 1981.

Many Thanks to Lou Lumenick for supplying the Paramount Theatre's Zaza ad.

UPDATE: 5/31/2021 --- 11:10 am --- Ed Watz checks in with as-always fascinating info and some terrific ad images:

Hello John,

Hope this finds you well - we're doing good in our neck of the woods.  I just read your latest post on critics critiquing a movie amongst moviegoers - what can I say, it's excellent as always!  Your analysis of Arthur Mayer and the beloved Rialto's fare reminded me that my mom had saved some wartime issues of the NY Daily News that I enjoyed paging through as a kid.  I recalled that one paper in particular intrigued me -- inside was a 1945 ad for  Laurel & Hardy in THE MUSIC BOX.  Faulty memory told me this attraction played The Rialto - it didn't - it played The Laffmovie house - close enough proximity to The Rialto - but regardless, as a kid I was reassured that Bill Everson's (and others) claim that L&H were cast aside by '40's audiences in favor of modern comics like Abbott & Costello, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye or Red Skelton doesn't hold true.

Here's the ad, first by itself, then with the full page so you could see how prominently the 13-year-old, 28-minute MUSIC BOX was being promoted.  You can imagine how this floored me as an 8 or 9 year-old - for me, that yellowed and crumbling Daily News was like discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls!

In the Keaton talkie book (out soon, I hope) I've included a mid-forties ad for a current war film double-billed with Keaton's 1935 two-reeler TARS AND STRIPES.  Buster's short receives as much ad space as the new feature.  Who says the old-time comedians were forgotten - if the films were talkies, there was no problem finding an audience in the 1940s, in big cities or small towns.  And as you previously showed us, if the films featured Chaplin, they didn't even have to be talkies!

Thanks for always educating all of your friends & fans with the Best Blog ever!

All best wishes,


Monday, May 24, 2021

Where Clowns Could Do It All


Suspense as in Could He Play Serious?

“Live” and anthology TV from the fifties remains a largely unexplored universe, so much gone, but because so much was made, lots still to ferret out, and free thanks to You Tube. Live performing laid opportunity before artists that movies seldom conferred, a rare option to step out of type and show stuff they had all along but were estopped from sharing on large screens. Two samples of late YT peruse: Boris Karloff as a Nobel-lauded scientist with family trouble (lay-about son Skip Homier, daughter with difficulties Patricia Barry), hour drama called The Shadow of a Genius (1958), part of Studio One ongoing anthology. A moral dilemma tests Karloff ethics … can he take credit for a discovery possibly the product of another? No genre trappings here, as it is straight science he practices, us to treat these situations as within realm of possibility. I took The Shadow of a Genius for precious glimpse of “Broadway Boris,” work we might have seen him routinely engage had rigid genre expectations been relaxed, a nearest to seeing Karloff live and on stage. I once heard him referred to as a “journeyman actor,” a slight to my young ears, though what this better denotes is “a qualified, experienced, and reliable performer,” which Karloff proved he was, especially during the fifties when television and Broadway kept him well and broadly occupied. So glad I took a flyer on The Shadow of a Genius rather than down the hatch again with Voodoo Island or The Haunted Strangler.

Comedians to dabble in drama did so on television or not at all, TV a lab where off-casting was encouraged. Here then was Bud Abbott as foot-wipe agent for stand-up heel Lee Marvin (1961’s The Joke’s On Me), dealt out after first fifteen minutes of a half-hour drama, impression made, him good. Well obviously, he was a "straight man" after all. Maybe Bud relived some of trying moments with Lou, known to misuse his partner where chips were down, or up. You Tube has The Joke’s On Me up to Bud depart, correct perhaps for assuming we cease to care once he’s gone (though I do wonder what becomes of the Marvin character). Seems everybody funny got a chance to not be funny on anthology shows. Buster Keaton did heavy drama for a light beer, Rheingold Theatre in 1954, publicity attendant upon him being something other than a clown of yore. It is on DVD, also at You Tube. I don’t recall any comedian being bad in a straight part. Seems they were better equipped to play serious than those who did it as habit. One to hand himself a stunning comeback for being other than clownish was Ed Wynn, a figure of fun for all of anyone’s lifetime by the 50’s, his former fame at a level few jesters got near. Ed was the whole show in Broadway revues popular for his antics and no one else’s. Ziegfeld toplined him. Seldom-easy-to-please Dorothy Parker was an unabashed fan, a mid-1920 offering, Ed Wynn’s Carnival “by far the funniest thing that has been developed by the musical-comedy industry thus far in the season … Wynn is, fortunately, on the stage for seven-eighths of the time … he carries off the whole show, from his initial entrance to the very end,” which in the case of Carnival, saw Wynn repairing to the foyer just after curtain drop, “asking the outgoing audiences if they liked (the show), and he has yet to take “no” for an answer.”

Here was cheek to make Jolson seem modest, but Wynn had record crowds for proof he was laughter’s messiah, an impression passing years would not rub out. Television wanted Wynn, old acts or new. He chose old on belief no one argues with success, his 1950 Camel Comedy Caravan short-lived, but an Emmy recipient (“Best Live Show”), so fault was figured to lie elsewhere than Ed. Still, there weren’t calls to encore, so maybe his bolt was spent, at least as applied back when first-nighters arrived horse-drawn. I look at Wynn’s old stuff, Camel spots with guest Buster Keaton or the Three Stooges, and figure we progressed since, but who is kidding who? When I grew up, it was fads like Flip Wilson or Rowan and Martin supplying tons a’ fun, or catch-phrases from Get Smart repeated endlessly at school. Such comic gold as spun in the sixties will likely not revive for a present day. If memory serves, these had gone down disposals by the mid-seventies. An ice-cream cone to whoever next ID’s Flip or Dan/Dick, qualifiers under age of sixty, please. The fact Ed Wynn began with vaudeville in 1903, kept at his plow to the end amounts to amazing longevity (The Gnome-Mobile released posthumous in 1967). He rejuvenated the career at a point when most would have bowed out, or bowed to numbing old-timer awards, Ed's miracle wrested off ninety minutes done live (10/11/56) by Playhouse 90’s Requiem for a Heavyweight. He'd be limited to comedy no longer. I know not another from his category who made such a leap, let alone did it literally overnight.

By 1955-56, there were as many as sixteen live stories broadcast nationally every week by the major networks, wrote Frank Sturcken in his Live Television: The Golden Age of 1946-1958 in New York. Idealistic executives (there once were those, if not many) saw live drama as a direct bridge from Broadway to viewer homes, an antidote for junky Hollywood films and radio gone to seed. New talent, fresh young talent, fairly burst at seams of a medium that would ideally serve their artistic spirit. No compromising here, for ours was finally a public that could receive and appreciate finer things, a notion to be blasted in short order, but soothing while it lasted. Live television had a nervous energy --- anything going wrong and you’d see it same as cameras facing the action, like wrestling with verbal rather than physical falls. To this arena came pro cast of Requiem for a Heavyweight, Jack Palance of Method-background, Keenan Wynn with years’ experience in a wide range of character parts … and Ed Wynn, a seeming forever clown, the biggest gamble taken that October ’56 night, for up till a start bulb lit, no one figured he could make it. That story was told in columns and from comfortable distance of triumph Wynn had, later and more extraordinarily by an hour (filmed) drama (1960) that told how close Playhouse 90 came to disaster for using an old dog seemingly incapable of new tricks.

Wynn played Palance’s fight trainer, both past prime. Keenan Wynn was their manager. Rod Serling wrote from an underbelly of pugilism, having boxed himself during young years, thus hep to the milieu. Like any best of live drama, Requiem had sniff of the real, grit seldom stuff of Hollywood, life on terms raw as jerky movement to follow players from one minimalist set to the next. Imagine Ed Wynn that night … late to bed on the 11th not knowing how you came off, no seated audience after all, thirty million watching sure, but none to tell Ed if he was good, or stank. Come 12th dawn, however, and Ed Wynn is the toast not just of New York, but the country for a whole, word out and spreading that a new dramatic star is born. For this to happen with a young actor was not unusual, as many a future was forecast by success on live TV, but talent which only a day before was written off and unwanted? This was stuff of seeming divine intervention, a reminder that no loser need stay that way, scrap heaps avoidable given luck and pluck. Truest drama of Requiem for a Heavyweight was what it did for Ed Wynn, Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse staging a 4-15-60 recap of the 10-11-56 cliffhang night they'd call The Man In The Funny Suit.

The Man In The Funny Suit
, written-produced, directed by Requiem’s Ralph Nelson, used participants from the ’56 broadcast to reenact panic surrounding Ed’s inability to put aside clowning and be serious. Nelson played himself, as did Keenan Wynn, Rod Serling, guest Red Skelton, and of course, Ed Wynn, a part tricky as any drama enactor was ever handed, for this was real-life him as hapless, slow-to-learn, getting it finally at a last moment, his performance to leave Requiem itself in the shade. Ed had over a four-year interim taken more straight parts, plateau being The Diary of Anne Frank for director George Stevens in 1959. A remarkable transition, and in so short a time. The Man In The Funny Suit had us believe, and I believe it was accurate, that Ed Wynn found it simply impossible to quit being funny for the sake of any part, so ingrained were habits honed over a lifetime. Think about everything he had done since early in the century. Never once that I know of was Ed anything other than the Perfect Fool. I watched MGM’s The Chief (1933, and available from Warner Archive), a starring feature vehicle for Wynn where even mild pathos was a strain, foolishness bred deep by a farcing stage he could not step from even for a moment. For Ed not to be funny was tougher than such commission would be for most anyone else.

I considered others who stepped off curb that was comedy, and how they fared doing so. For large part, these would be experiments for television, a half-hour or so not risking much, object to give viewers a novelty, suspending laughter just this once. And who knows, maybe Buster Keaton, or a Marx Brother, would be good being serious, a stunt worth anyone’s thirty minutes. Keaton was fine as common sense would dictate, for hadn’t he essentially done drama as Johnny Gray in The General, moments plenty for The Cameraman, or that French piece from the mid-thirties, character spots in San Diego, I Love You, or as “Hickey” in the Judy Garland summertime musical? Keaton kept a varied kit from childhood, a one-time Little Lord Fauntleroy after all, plus melodrama he stepped into occasionally to fill a breach. There too was Groucho, Harpo, Chico, each Marx rising to dramatic occasion, Chico doing a Playhouse 90 (which also featured Buster Keaton), about an airliner that disappears in mid-flight. Harpo would play a store mannequin for The Du Pont Show who witnesses murder from his window perch, then has to outrun killers who saw him seeing them, a part the erstwhile comedian plays speechless but, as always, effective. Then came Groucho as a suburban Dad thinking daughter Brooke Hayward too young to marry Dennis Hopper, a 1962 half-hour for General Electric Theatre. Lou Costello did a Wagon Train close to the end, point being these people could perform drama in their sleep, undoubtedly easier than serious actors might essay comedy. Ed Wynn just had a deeper learning curve, but once there, was solid.

Above Two Images: Ed, Keenan, Ned Wynn

Ed had added stress of working for a first time with son Keenan. There had been tension from a start between these two. Keenan felt he had been neglected from childhood, and held Ed responsible for his late mother’s alcoholism and premature death. Keenan also had a drink problem, as would his son Ned Wynn. Ned wrote a book in 1990 that told the Wynn family saga on unsparing terms, himself spared the least. There were sad conflicts here, an only Wynn to emerge clean being Grandpa Ed, who Ned clearly adored. As to Keenan vis a vis Ed, “he had been in a lifelong rebellion against his father … the man who signed the checks but gave nothing of himself.” We Will Always Live in Beverly Hills: Growing Up Crazy in Hollywood is among best of gloves-off memoirs, and a vivid picture of family life as lived on stages and screen through four generations and counting. Ed Wynn would stay a busy actor, and comedian, for the remainder of his life, often enough for Disney as to be a sort of luck piece for the producer. Sometimes comedy bled into drama as if to hedge bets where Ed was used, as witness Marjorie Morningstar, Wynn a loveable “Uncle Samson” who will break character midway to become the Perfect Fool for a comic bullfight, safest bet offering something for everyone, drama as heavier lifted done so by Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly. Features and TV programs referred to in this post are available on DVD, or can be found at You Tube. Specifically, the Harpo and Groucho anthology dramas are part of a multi-disc set, The Marx Brothers TV Collection, from Shout DVD.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Sad Dogs Need Love Too


Who Needs Them All To Be Classics?

A late-in-life interview saw writer/wit Anita Loos high for old movies she had been watching over sleepless hours on NY television. “Even the bad ones have great vitality,” she said. Started me to thinking that, yes, they do. Sometimes especially the “bad” ones. It no longer must be just-classics to please in these quarters. Aspect of those can almost intimidate. I watched Cult of the Cobra last night and was charmed, it being of snake woman Faith Domergue questioning her commitment to a kill-spree on behalf of an Eastern sect intruded upon by Yank servicemen out for kicks. She falls for dumbest of the bunch Marshall Thompson and we’re supposed to approve, except I did not because here's a sap better left to fate a beauty-turned-serpent would deign for him. I called out “Don’t! She’s a cobra!” each time MT eased forward to clinch FD, but being late night alone in darkness saw my warnings unheeded. I began wondering if I'd still want to kiss Faith Domergue even knowing she might revert to scaled skin, this a question any man might ask himself. So you see, Cult of the Cobra does address vital issues even as it falls short of what convention would call a classic. To follow then, are selections not arrived at other than arbitrarily, being mere-what-turned-up while foraging for perhaps better things. They remind me of a story told by Sarah Karloff of occasion when Dad took her to adopt a dog from the pound. She chose a cute one rather than three-legged, or one-eyed, or maybe just scruffy, alternatives. Boris complied, being sorry she left sad dogs, for “they needed love most of all.” Here then, is selection of sad dogs for us to love …

PRIVATE NUMBER (1936) --- Photoplay said of Private Number, It's a paean to love, unsaid being fact it was also a sop to readers of Photoplay, who lived for dreamy close-upping of stars Loretta Young and Robert Taylor. She was lately back from desert "rest cure" for an alleged nervous breakdown (actually a pregnancy leave w/Clark Gable's child), and it was said the actress would marry Eddie Sutherland, bon vivant director late of Louise Brooks' bed, such perks largely reason for guys like Eddie pursuing movie work in the first place (Brooks recalled he cared more for party life than making good pictures). Private Number did please, and was reissued a mere two years later. Stills could be had from 20th Fox at Box 900 in Beverly Hills, one dime, please, for each. Other companies sold photos from New York home offices, mags like Picture Play supplying addresses and price lists. I had heard of star portraits available, was less aware that scene stills also circulated among fanbase, till-now assuming they went only to poster exchanges or print outlets, this under head of learning something new every day.

Who's For Traveling Back Ninety Years To Trade Places with Eddie Sutherland?

"When They Smile, You'll Hold Your Breath," was tagline used for Private Number ads, referring to Young/Taylor in promised embrace. These were quintessence of H'wood's Beautiful People, Taylor to such a degree that it was years before anyone recognized him as any kind of actor (and in fact, he had a tough time reaching such level of confidence himself). Young had bought into the machinery and her performances would become as mechanical, sort of a Maria the Robot of Rotwang design. Private Number then, was a picture with everything, and nothing. Glamour parts being interchangeable, you could as easily stall production a few months and let newly arrived (to stardom) Tyrone Power do Taylor's part, with anyone from Janet Gaynor to Constance Bennett filling for Young. In fact, Bennett had a near identical turn in precode's Common Clay, which could boast at least surface honesty denied censor-clamped Private Number.

Roy Del Ruth Directs Loretta Young

The only ones approaching human behavior as we might experience it are Basil Rathbone and comic support Patsy Kelly. In fact, this is Rathbone's show from opening to last, him the frustrated coveter of Loretta favors and doing dreadful things to win them. We feel Basil's pain for identifiable emotions the starrier types would not engage lest they lose our sympathy and diminish a public's worship. He reveals darker aspect of us all as contra to Taylor/Young, their chat and endless clinches an ideal none could realistically aspire to, Rathbone's a reserve of smited love, class resentment, and bent sexual obsession. He is in short too good for fluff that is Private Number, but here's the thing, Basil makes it good enough. To ignore Private Number is to miss joy of star vehicular assault upon matinee goers who dropped what they could spare of coin on fan magazines (or those mail-order stills) after purchase of tickets. Private Number was a movie for people who used movies like a drug. To them, it was news that Robert Taylor was teamed here for a first time with Loretta Young, him borrowed from Metro, its executives having pecuniary interest in a healthy 20th Century Fox. Private Number has turned up on the latter's satellite channel, then as an On-Demand DVD, quality OK and worth a dip in event price drops below fifteen or less dollars, a level it finds at Amazon from time to time.

A RAGE IN HEAVEN (1941) --- Mad as a hatter Robert Montgomery oppresses wife Ingrid Bergman, who stays and stays despite every indication she should get hell out. George Sanders is for once more sinned against than sinning, and ends up in a murder frame. For a possibly one and only time, we see George weep on camera, which in itself might make A Rage In Heaven essential viewing, though I for one do not enjoy seeing George cry, rather preferring he reduce others to tears. Bergman began here a cycle wherein she'd be victimized by unbalanced husband/lovers, Gaslight and Spellbound to more successfully follow A Rage In Heaven. This actress was husky enough to stave off most any attacker, save Mike Mazurki or Bull Montana, so you wonder why she so meekly plays doormat. Selznick owned Bergman and loaned her for projects like this one for MGM. Montgomery had gone psycho before in Night Must Fall, so someone at least saw rot below surface charm.

Ingrid Bergman would years later recall strife with speed-director W.S. Van Dyke, who she said gave no guidance and was always in a rush. That generally was a plus to Van Dyke output, even as he was overcome by lugubrious yarns such as spun here. Bergman might have relaxed and let Van quick-finish what he or anyone could see was movie equivalent of paperback books. A Rage In Heaven is one where folks dress even where eating at home sans guests. There is barely a scene with Montgomery or Sanders out of black tie. Metro figured we'd all like to live thus and so poured away, A Rage In Heaven among plush chairs brought back when Leo initiated a postwar series of "Masterpiece Reprints" in 1946. What wiser than to encore Bergman now that she was a hottest of lead ladies? Success of A Rage In Heaven was dazzling for a reissue, or, for that matter, first-run. Weak as it was, $1.7 million in worldwide rentals was realized, this for but five-year-old product. 1941's release had yielded mere $920K from ditto marketplace. MGM's reissue program was off to a roaring lion's start.

NOBODY LIVES FOREVER (1946) --- John Garfield confidence gaming in a yarn by crime specialist W.R. Burnett of Little Caesar/High Sierra fame, links emphasized by WB for the trailer and elsewhere. The Code still frowned on gangster exploit, but this was more along lines of flimflamming with minimum of gunplay, so dialogue dominates. Garfield was tough to cast, auds nagged by a feeling that whatever he did, Cagney or Bogart could do better. He's positioned well here, being huckster with a heart who can't bring himself to fleece rich widow Geraldine Fitzgerald, herself guileless this time as straightforward lead lady. Jean Negulesco directs at efficient Warner tempo, being heir to style of Curtiz and Walsh if not altogether their equal. Interesting to watch how quickly beginners like Negulesco, Don Siegel, and Gordon Douglas adapted to house pattern, or was it editors responsible for WB signature? Talk is tough throughout and we do get what seems authentic whiff of scams this crew pulls, Garfield in league with Walter Brennan, George Tobias, others less savory. Nice touch too is a war still going on as these guys operate, JG's character having been mustered out following injury on the Italian front (Nobody Lives Forever, like several high-profile WB's, was held from release for over a year). We're a little doubtful how things will work out for Garfield's sympathetic con man what with dead bodies scattered for a finish and Code edicts that must hold sway, but Nobody Lives Forever spares anxiety by fade to its end title before messy matters are addressed. Shown in HD on TCM.

TWO TICKETS TO BROADWAY (1951) --- Howard Hughes "Presents" a musical. His name was prominent in credits and ads, so HH must have been proud. He hired best talent to beat MGM at a genre they were acknowledged to own, borrowing Leo talent (Janet Leigh, Ann Miller, Marge/Gower Champion as dance coaches) and splurging $2.3 million on the negative. This was extravagant even by Metro standards, let alone RKO where fists were tighter, except when Hughes took personal interest, in which case costs ballooned. The largely unseen chief had a yen for Leigh that could be but satisfied between sheets, and toward that end, he would delay punch of Two Tickets, then dither once production was underway. Outcome that should be dire is instead okay, agreeable surprise for being done by unaccustomed-to-song RKO.

Added sugar was Hughes hiring Busby Berkeley to stage numbers; you know him by sudden departure from workmanlike James V. Kern direction to swooping camera that was Buzz's. Janet Leigh was taught to dance, while Ann Miller, of course, came prepared, her wisely given tap solos, being most accomplished of the girl quartet that also numbers Gloria DeHaven and Barbara Lawrence. These, plus Tony Martin, were pleasing talents, and it's good seeing them shine in a lush vehicle all their own. There's also Bob Crosby as himself, singing to a wax figure of Bing, odd depart by a performer you'd have thought was out from under brother's shadow by 1951. Action happens on staging of Bob's TV program, a welcome glimpse at Hollywood concept of what went on behind vid scenes.

There is also New York as seen from roof of walk-ups, a soothing bath of neon colors that must have been a trial to sleep among for those living in Gotham at the time. Best of guests are Smith and Dale of vaude fame, these two together longer than anyone performing anywhere, most agreeing their act still worked. We could regret that originally slated Laurel and Hardy couldn't fill these parts, but Smith/Dale do fine by material ancient as they were by '51. Forget where I saw/read it, but Janet Leigh recalled L&H at a script reading, indicating they were along for at least part of the ride. Too bad effort of Two Tickets would not pay, the show losing $1.1 million. Problem was not a public's rejection; worldwide rentals an OK $2.7 million ... it's just that Hughes sunk way more than could be recovered. Two Tickets To Broadway plays TCM in gorgeous HD color.
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