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Monday, August 30, 2021

Rangers, Show Your Colors

 Buck Jones As Guiding Light for Generations

“Critic’s Choice” has out a DVD of nine Buck Jones westerns produced by Columbia in the early thirties. My question is, what critics chose Buck Jones for a 2021 disc set? He is gone as gone gets. Even those who profess to love old films go blank at Buck’s name. All of B westerners are rode off for that matter. It may be time for me to shut up about them ... maybe had they been less integral to past collecting, I’d step off and let memory of cowboy dominance drop. Those after all were not my memories, but ones of old men who guided me through thicket that was film and paper chase once upon past time. Again it was question of whose nostalgia was this? Not mine surely, even as I long to have been part of generations that saw cowboys and serials on initial roundups. Old timer enthusiasms really were contagious, but thing was, if you didn’t live it, you couldn’t truly love it. I always felt a little left out at cowboy cons, as if they all had secrets I never would know. And surely no one in my age group cared for clip-clop westerns … they could barely be bothered with westerns at all, lest they were Italian and had Clint Eastwood in them. Question just occurs: Did any college or university ever screen a B western? (Take your time, we’ve plenty of it) Closest they may have come was in the seventies when Clayton Moore visited campuses as the Lone Ranger, but that was more TV nostalgia than front row feeling. There was something mildly inauthentic about tube cowboys, mere toothpaste to squeeze out each week between jarring commercial breaks, no more reflective of the old west, or even old westerns, than lunch boxes that bore their likeness. Cruel was passage of time that saw cowboys disappear, then fans to fade the same. What film scholar will claim these now?

I want to talk about Buck Jones for few others that are likely to. Per usual with lecture, I brought slides, plus watched some of what he left, feature/serial samples, to better understand how this man commanded loyalty likes of which few of any genre would inspire. But this was love of then, to sustain no longer than lives of devotees. When Buck died tragically in 1942, there was grief not limited to child patronage, for he had been around and performing since the early twenties, sufficient to engage one generation, then a next. Longevity of film stardom was a thing not realized until lifetime of movies caught up with lifelong popularity of players who stayed the course. Age or fate would claim a Buck Jones, or Gary Cooper, or John Wayne … otherwise they might still be here selling tickets, with help of digital jiggery I’ve seen applied to Al Pacino, De Niro, more lately Eastwood, judging by a trailer for Cry Macho, his latest starring vehicle, the seeming impossible made possible for a man aged ninety-one playing “Macho” as he has since I was born (so maybe it's my turn to go out and be a leading man). Will digital bring Bill Hart back? I mean not his old movies, but a reanimated him. Or Buck Jones? No good, because wizardry however adept could not restore what they stood for, or a world they bestrode. Anyhow, Bill or Buck would probably take one look at a world we’ve made, and say Thanks Pard, but No Thanks.

Buck is Guest for Recital of a Buck Jones Rangers Band

Buck Jones had been a real cowboy in Oklahoma, this after serving in the US Cavalry, entry papers faked (with his mother’s assist) to effect he was eighteen rather than actual sixteen. Buck was shot in the Philippines trying to put down the Moro rebellion on Army behalf, nearly left a leg there. He could ride a horse as wind blows, agreed to try acting so long as it amounted to no more than rugged stuff he was doing anyway. Silent hoof-beating for Fox got him to number two at the studio behind Tom Mix, and by twenties end, he was earning $2,500 a week, which at that time bought much cake and ale. Jones was a man of moderation, bent toward family and seeing jobs through. What he lacked was business acumen and ability to spot snakes in his grass. One of them wheedled him into a Wild West show Buck underwrote after leaving Fox, and poof went the cowboy’s fortune. He took after said snake with a gun, but like all knaves, this one vanished truly into the night, passage bought with Buck’s hard-earned fortune. What was it with western stars fronting Wild West shows and circuses gone splat? What chance did any greasepaint cowpoke have of hauling tents, livestock, clowns, and popcorn back/forth across rugged country that was still America up to and through a Great Depression? Blind optimism I suppose, and boy, were these heroes blind, like rubes challenged to find peas under walnut shells. Their talent lay spectacularly elsewhere. Men of Buck’s sort were seldom put among us, them of ability foreign to virtually all who acted for screens. In his and their case (Mix, Maynard, too few others), it mattered not how dialogue was spoke, or anything done standing still. People who went to see a Buck Jones had no interest in inertia.

Here and below: Some of What You Got With Your Buck Jones Ranger Suit

Fans loved cowboys because they were the only ones taking real chances at otherwise make believe. Children especially knew hazard duty when they saw it. I looked at a chapter of Gordon of Ghost City (from VCI in HD) where Buck does a horse to wagon transfer, as in under the wagon and between charging team, to hoist up and rescue Madge Bellamy. Cold chill watching? Yes, and largely because action like this seems no longer attempted, latter-day superheroes anything but super beside Buck and brotherhood who really did danger as opposed to floating about in computerized space. Other instance: Buck bulldogs a man off his mount and they fist-scrap, not on choreograph terms to come courtesy Yakima Canutt who knew how to make fights look real without being real, but with punches to the face and elsewhere not necessarily pulled as Canutt and company would master later. Reduced circumstance as befell Buck by the early thirties cut pay packet to $300 per week, from which he was honor bound to repay debts from the kaput tent show (my query: Did he ever track down that snake who stole?). Thing is Buck seldom played stalwart as in hero blueprint pervaded by others later in the decade. Jones often as not arrives broke and hungry, chased off ranch hand jobs for slacking, or in the case of Forbidden Trail (1932) handy with a slingshot and too bone idle for useful work. Buck employed humor as much as action; you could never be sure he’d make it to the burning cabin on time or even be inclined to do so. What we call “commitment issues” were written all over Buck. He made bumming around a signature, and I wonder if the character wasn’t based on observation Jones made of men who in hard times said Why Bother?, figuring to give little as they could for as much as they could get, except Buck gave all once roused, the wait always worth it as he would exceed whatever was expectation.

You Can Hear It at You Tube. Nice Banjo Accompany.

So it was for something other than conventional heroics that Buck Jones’ devotees looked up to. Columbia initiated the Buck Jones Rangers in 1932, a logical outgrowth of Mickey Mouse Clubs which had been in place and successful for several years. The Rangers were organized and prolific. Membership estimates were from two to four million, cooperation had from Parent-Teacher groups and the Boy Scouts of America. Girls were welcome to become Rangers. Club chapters were dotted nationwide. “The Rangers keep the theatre-owners out of the red and help him to greater profits. It means that a nationwide organization of enterprising boys have endorsed your theatre and are out boosting it. The volume of such exploitation cannot be estimated. Every exhibitor owes it to himself to see that his theatre is designated as the home of a troop of Buck Jones Rangers.” Nat Farber’s Majestic Theatre (NYC) announced formation of a chapter and saw 2,500 children sign up within a week. To celebrate, he staged a parade through the heart of upper Manhattan where Rangers were joined by two Boy Scout troops and a Bugle and Drum Corps. Arrival at the theatre saw all participants reciting Rangers’ and Scouts’ pledges. Buck Jones committed to teach Rangers “everything a cowboy knows,” including how to throw a rope, ride a horse, and “shoot dead straight.” There was ranking among Rangers, chevrons issued to reflect individual status. Depending on individual achievement, you could become a First-Class Ranger, Corporal, Sergeant and so on up to Assistant Chief and Chief.

Ranger tunes had lyrics customized for members (theatre singalongs a weekly tradition), plus Buck gave tips on how to learn the harmonica and bugle (“almost anybody can master these instruments immediately”). Instruction was offered to help members become expert western “story tellers,” with a book explaining “how you can work out many thrilling western tales for yourself … The book gives all the parts and the plot and dialogue.” Did Rangers grow up to write for series westerns? Looks as though they were being groomed for it here. Single-round boxing matches of three-minute duration were organized for one chapter. Another event saw 15,000 Rangers turned out for a picnic and swim event at Luna Park on Coney Island. A Rangers Rodeo drew 10,000 to bleachers. Obvious benefit for Columbia was enhanced by chapters operating independently, none relying on the company for financial support. The Buck Jones Rangers had become a self-perpetuating force, “the biggest fan club in America,” as one exhibitor labeled it. No western star, save Tom Mix with his talkie series for Universal, came near popularity Buck Jones enjoyed. Among Columbia westerners, Jones regularly outpaced, for instance, Tim McCoy, The Thrill Hunter (Jones) taking $100K in domestic rentals, while End of the Trail (McCoy) saw $65,000, money not so dazzling as A’s done by Columbia or elsewhere, but reliable, plus bear in mind, the pictures themselves cost in low five figures, patronage in many if not most situations paying mere dimes, at most quarters, to see them.

Have Yet To Come Upon This Scene in Gordon of Ghost City, But Will Keep Looking

Jones had signed with veteran producer Sol Lesser for the initial eight talkie westerns to be distributed by Columbia, a point at which $300 per week looked good, at least on Depression era terms. The star’s stipend rose as cheer-led by Ranger ranks swelled via merchandising to meet need of boys and girls who sought to emulate Buck. Consider the Rangers Cowboy Suit, with hat, kerchief, lariat, other accessories, then imagine going to-fro for Saturday shows, becoming one with Jones as role model. There was singular state of mind inspired by cowboys, a philosophy complex as way of life proposed by Transcendentalists of an earlier age (left-field notion which I'm more and more believing). These were children who would grow up and win a next World War after all. How much may we credit Buck Jones and men like him for this? To think series westerns were simplistic is to reveal too little familiarity with them. They would not have lasted so many decades, gathered such mass support, had water been shallow as detractors propose. I had an encounter just recent with a townsman now in his late seventies who worked as an usher at the Liberty during the late fifties-early sixties. Colonel Forehand hired a lot of boys that he knew could use the work, and their families the income. One stipulation however: Each of ushers had to present his report card whenever schools issued them, continued employment dependent upon keeping up your marks. I have gone years seeking to understand the cowboy credo better, when perhaps there was no better testament to it than policy like this. The Colonel upon retirement became scoutmaster for our Presbyterian Troop 336. More Eagles came of his stewardship than any the troop had recorded. Like other small-town theatres through the Southeast, the Liberty went decades supplying life lessons on Saturdays via cowboy instructors. I know I’m the poorer for not being there for them. Maybe attendance at all those collector caravans was effort by boys-to-men to finally understand what it was about westerns and idols populating them that made matinees teachable moments for so many.

Slow Period in the Dealer's Room at the Seventh Annual Buck Jones Meet in 1989

Years ago, I guess around 1977, some of us drove to Greensboro, a local theatre rolling weekend dice with westerns just like in Good Old Days, except this was no downtown house crowded with kids, but a strip mall cracker box sat empty except for us. Management surely recalled better days from youth, but these would not be recaptured by 16mm prints, fuzzy and muffled, of John Wayne in Riders of Destiny, along with Buster Crabbe and Bad Fuzzy St. John in something-or-other. You Can’t Go Home Again should have been writ large upon the marquee for these and other of heroes ridden away to stay. Buck Jones was then gone thirty-five years, a lifetime by ’77 reckoning, him a most notable of 492 fatalities from 1942’s Coconut Grove fire in Boston. The Rangers had meantime hung up spurs, a Rochester, NY fan, Dominick Marafioti, of Rochester, NY, reviving the concept in 1979, his annual Buck Jones Festival running till 2004, when Marafioti left us, after which there was no one to take over the Festival. Celebration of series westerns fell like dominoes. To my knowledge, there isn’t a round-up left going. Jon Tuska and Packy Smith, stalwart among western historians, have passed. I found a Buck Jones Rangers of America ball cap on Ebay, ordered it, and will await some hombre asking me who hell Buck Jones is. Meanwhile, I watch his westerns. One from the Critic’s Choice set was Range Feud (1931), wherein sheriff Buck’s boyhood pal, who he must now take in charge for murder, is played by boyish-still John Wayne. Latter was said to idolize Jones, “a genuine hero” said Wayne, because he sacrificed his life saving others at the Coconut Grove. There’s little indication it went that way, but I, like Duke, will gladly cling to Buck as real-life hero to the last. A lovely scene that opens Range Feud will do to sum up Buck Jones as first among exemplars. He speaks to warring cattlemen from the pulpit of a frontier church, pistol drawn to keep factions from pulling theirs. “Remember … we’re in the House of God,” says Buck, as sincere a line reading as one could hope to hear. Dedication of those kid multitudes, of adults they would become, make plentiful sense by such evidence as this.

UPDATE (8-31): Scott MacGillivray presents evidence of Buck Jones' appeal to an older and younger generation circa 1941:

Hi, John — In today’s post you say, When Buck died tragically in 1942, there was grief not limited to child patronage, for he had been around and performing since the early twenties, time enough to engage one generation, then a next. Longevity of film stardom was a thing not realized until movies were around long enough to confer lifetime popularity upon ones who stayed the course.

Right you are. Here’s a trade ad for the penultimate Buck Jones serial, and Columbia is reminding exhibitors to aim for both generations. (The kids’ hats aren’t anachronistic — the serial was released in January 1941, so this is a winter scene!)

Monday, August 23, 2021

Technicolorful Hill Folk

Paramount's Lost World Of Americana

Hillbilly dramas can weigh heavy minus proper mood to watch, as I've found in past efforts to engage The Shepherd of The Hills, a 1941 Technicolor go at isolated life among mountain folk. Maybe harsh depiction of the people and life strikes close to the bone (or do I need balm of an "Ozark Love Charm," itself a chicken bone left at doorways as stimulant to romance, said Paramount publicity). Hill-dwellers brew illegal whiskey and shoot it out with revenuers, not in fun ways Robert Mitchum later would on Thunder Road. Initial Blu-Ray offering was from France, and welcome leap to full-on quality versus compromised circumstance of TV (lately there are broadcasts on Retro Plex and/or Cinemax Westerns in HD) and a domestic DVD that wasn't half bad, but not so vibrant as this. There were burned in French subtitles, an irritant, but so far to the bottom of the image that they barely registered, at least on my screen. Whatever the limp, Shepherd is joy to see pin-sharp and hue-enhanced, the way we wish all Technicolor from the 40's could survive. Surprise for watching the French, with its subtitles, is the 1941 show coming off like an American art movie where it's Euros left to read words off the screen and realize values of design and color as practiced by US filmmakers. So this is how budding auteurists were obliged to see Shepherd of the Hills a first time in France, absorbing art from us before we bowed to art from them, strong visual-at-least argument to put us equal to imports, as moments of Shepherd are stunning in effect, no less so an impactful story it tells. Result is Shepherd of the Hills no longer a forced march, as thanks to French-inflected telling, I finally "get" it. But never mind R-2 experiment, for Kino tenders now a domestic Blu-Ray, so all is right with this one-of-a-backwoods-kind. 

The hillbilly as hard case is fair-accurate, I suppose, but still one needs hard bark for blood oaths, generalized feuding, and bad ends for mountain dwellers given to superstition that all knows us of primitive up-bring to be ruled by. Character players are off-type to memorable result. Surely Beulah Bondi, Marc Lawrence, others, looked back on this as most rewarding work they ever were given. I met Lawrence at a paper show once and did not mention The Shepherd of the Hills, maybe as well because on that 1990's day he acted more like his mob character in Key Largo and sort of scared me off. These people sometimes forget that some of us really believe in their screen constructions, especially where practiced, repeated, over many decades. Shepherd is really Harry Carey's vehicle, though third-billed, and what a tribute to his enduring persona, reflective of real standing Carey had among a first, and as of 1941, succeeding generation of filmgoers. John Wayne registers as mere boy beside him despite Duke having plied at movies himself for nearly fifteen years by then. Stagecoach was a start, but it was still a while before Wayne truly found his niche at leads. He is offscreen for much of The Shepherd of The Hills, the piece an ensemble and presumed adhere to the novel from which it derived. Henry Hathaway directs, and you could say he followed John Ford's Stagecoach and The Long Voyage Home example at not letting all action revolve around Wayne's character. Carey as elder spokesman and mover of events gives The Shepherd of The Hills an integrity it might have missed had narrative chips been pushed Wayne's way. Fans today might want more of him, but 1941 viewership were fully engaged by known/loved authority that was Harry Carey, The Shepherd of The Hills a ringing statement of what he stood for to a great many people.    

Hill folk invariably took hard licks from Hollywood. They were as remote, it seemed, as a Third World within our own, being law unto selves, driven by violence and muddle notions of right/wrong. Worse, they were not habitual moviegoers, so films could smite freely where extreme rustics were dramatized. Other hillbillies, reconstructed enough to at least wear shoes and pay ways into rural theatres, could embrace the libel and feel superior to brethren deeper absorbed by wilderness. It took a Trader Horn to venture too far up mountains, and yet they had exotic appeal, especially where represented by Betty Field as a way-back-to-nature goddess not far removed from natives we looked at in travelogues. The Shepherd of The Hills had a reissue in 1955 with new Technicolor prints on safety stock. There were 10,641 bookings and $319K in domestic rentals, probably thanks to John Wayne being there. Paramount might have kept it in profitable circulation for years more, at least in NC and similar sites, but I found no theatrical runs into the 60/70's, just television, many of broadcasts black-and-white, a refutation of much that was good about The Shepherd of The Hills.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Precode Breathing Its Last

Many Would Sally Forth To See Rand, But Would They Stay For Ruth?

Journal Of A Crime (1934) Gets Away With Murder

Pre-coders got away with a lot, including murder. Ones that committed it often ducked prosecution where baddies had death coming. There was more-than-once occasion when a Ricardo Cortez demise would go un-avenged. Characters we liked could rid themselves of pesky blackmailers or abusive lovers and be excused for it. Did this encourage self-help toward justice? Censors thought so, as in one more instance of movies being a corrupt influence upon soft minds that might imitate a Kay Francis or Loretta Young pulling triggers on villainy they and society would be better off rid of. Strict Code application ended all that, result a downer for third acts where sympathetic leads faced jail or the noose for crimes we'd endorse. Many a rug was pulled from under stories that were fun almost to the fade, then spoiled by rigid rules that made no narrative sense, but had to be observed. Never mind sex and sin banned off screens after mid-1934, this was what stung fans the deepest.

Journal Of A Crime got under a lowering net by dent of March 1934 release, mere months before crackdown was complete. The thing could not have been made at all a year later, for it turns on a woman who kills her husband's mistress and does not answer to law enforcement. A vehicle for Ruth Chatterton, whose value to Warner Bros. was coming under question after they filched her from Paramount (major flap between the two companies a result), Journal Of A Crime finds current interest for cunning way it takes Chatterton off the hook for shooting in cold blood a woman (Claire Dodd) who would steal husband Adolphe Menjou. We're teased by Chatterton coming within whiskers of confessing to the D.A., this not happening thanks to circumstances we welcome. The audience becomes complicit in the murder for not wanting Ruth brought to book for it, and I wonder how many in 1934 exited venues in a state of moral confusion, even guilt at being glad for Chatterton's evade of justice. My guess is all was OK thanks to such endings being business as usual, or at least often, for consumers of precode. A thought: Were jury sitters swayed by examples got from movies, result being criminals acquitted because they were right guys/gals other than at moments they robbed or killed?

Monday, August 09, 2021

Be True To My School


Should They Have Just Thrown Me Out and Be Done With It?

Started Pinocchio the other night, left it after twenty minutes. Took that long to bring the puppet to life, to get anything like a story underway. I’m supposed to be of a stripe tolerant toward measured pacing, but Pinocchio saw me restless to be past a cricket, then a cat, then a fish, layers of bread between set-up and presumed meat that is the wood boy given speech. Kept thinking how this Disney favorite (but whose favorite in 2021?) would be itch powder for generations, several now, who want, insist upon, animation at warp speed. Occurred to me too that Pinocchio lacks giddyap even Snow White had, forward from its opening with the queen’s threat, resolve, to black out a fairer heir to her throne. Don’t know another Disney that so licked challenge movies share of engaging us right from starts. Pinocchio too seems pitched to children, Pleasure Island and then Monstro but partial rescue from that. There was a book, heavy as a church door, called The Art of Walt Disney, out the same year I was at USC (Southern California, not South Carolina). Ours was a class, given over summer 1975, where members spent two-three days of each week at Universal, learning how movies got made. Portals were all open to us, a real-life Pleasure Isle minus bad boys (like me, as things developed) taking on donkey features, even where donkey-behaving (me again).

Semester assignment was to make a film, content our choice, one classmate’s a fully animated cartoon, six minutes long, good as Hanna-Barbera if not Disney, but peppered with profanity to make it seem an encore to Fritz the Cat. Still we were astonished, no less so than “den mother” of our group, Mona Kantor, who with her husband Bernard, greased entry onto various Universal filming sites and brought us before many a crowned head among studio personnel (missed Steven Spielberg, whose Jaws was getting ready to open, because he was sick on our appointed day). Wish I could remember that student-animator’s name. No one doubted his future in the field. Bet he has directed any number of cartoon features over intervening forty-six years. Our class was filled with singular personalities. Some were offspring of industry notables. One boy I have thought of often, clairvoyant a better word for him, used to ask every guest speaker if Universal had plans, or would make plans, to do a big movie set in outer space. Got to where everyone snickered at his glue on the topic, a monorail alongside wider tracks the rest travelled. I do remember several guests advising him that science-fiction was a doubtful prospect “at this time.” Did they, any of us, recall his prescience two years later when sci-fi took a highest gross of all time? I speculate too as to what became of our soothsayer. Would he/did he become an industry power?

Universal was retro-conscious that summer, having lately done Gable and Lombard, W.C. Fields and Me, others trading on past days and no doubt lubed by success of The Sting. There was a parking space designated for “W.C. Fields,” sop to Method-fueled Rod Steiger, who through production insisted he was Fields, according to a U-employed observer. There were veterans busy on the lot, Hal Wallis, Don Siegel, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock … nature’s last preserve for wildlife grazing on thinned grass. Each had an office or suite of same. We were escorted, the fifteen or so in my class, to a morning shoot on Deceit, initial title of Hitchcock’s Family Plot, not just for moment-glimpse, but to stay several hours and observe the Master at work. I stood there knowing this was a high point of my life, and so recorded as much detail as memory might allow. It was a garage set, with a parked car, all indoors, the stage dark where we stood, lighted for that portion needed to film. Karen Black did a scene and waved at us afterward. Hitchcock sat somewhat at a distance, people approaching him to confer, then withdrawing to where cameras and action was. Edith Head walked over to show AH some costume drawings. We were closer to him than he was to scenes being shot, I mean close within feet. At one point, he turned and looked straight at me, not for any reason I could discern, me quiet as a little mouse. Hitchcock was low-key and spoke soft to all in his orbit. We were finally ushered out, having presumably learned how to be a movie director just like Alfred Hitchcock. USC had real juice to arrange field trips like this. I was about to discover, however, limits to studio and school hospitality, certainly willingness to let me buddy up with idols a la cart.

There was more-less free reign despite recommendation we stay with the group. Lunch was daily highlight, the food plenty good, plus familiar faces passing our table or terrace seating. Mona Kantor always sat with us to sort of maintain invisible fencing. One time I hopped up to join Jackie Cooper as he left lunch to rejoin the Mobile One crew, that series produced by Jack Webb (whose parked car was always identifiable for its “Mark VII” license plate). Cooper was nice to me as he, like seemingly everyone at Universal, was aware of USC presence and commitment to make us feel welcome. There was an ominous “Black Tower” (presumably still there) where biggest wigs planned projects, though some, like Wilder and Hitchcock, kept to more picturesque, free-standing bungalows. I found out Don Siegel and Hal Wallis were in the Tower, so was determined to meet them. I called Siegel’s office first and the secretary was taken right away by my Southern accent, which I saw quick as a way in. Approach to Siegel’s office, down a long-carpeted hallway, was spiked by a figure coming out the door who walked toward, then past me, Clint Eastwood and I the only persons in an otherwise empty, cavernous, space. He spoke, cordial if subdued, perhaps knowing I had no business there. Would Clint rat me to Mona Kantor? Doubtful, as he had larger fish to fry. Siegel was great, loaded me down with souvenirs from a recent Euro festival in his honor, signed all of it, along with an Invasion of the Body Snatchers one-sheet I brought along. He told me he was getting ready to do The Sentinel, a project Michael Winner ended up directing. Siegel, always a favorite, became more so for showing such kindness and generosity that day.

It Wasn't So Lavish As This When I Was There

Next was Wallis. I went over this and more of the USC/Universal adventure back in 2010, so won’t hash further, except to report it was Mr. Wallis who unknowingly got me caught by the Kantors. The class was having outdoor lunch a couple days after my off-limits Wallis visit. He happened to walk by with some of his people, glancing our way, noticing me, and saying, “Hello, John.” That was it. Mona did not speak, but she knew. There was surely a woodshed in my offing. Investigation bore fruit, Bernard the bearer of dire warning that I would be marched out, epaulets stripped, sent home ignominiously should I ever do such a thing again (this with but a week left of the semester). It was the first time I was took out of class and hall-berated since Wilkes Central High. But who cares, I got to visit Don Siegel and Hal Wallis! I’d do it all again this minute, so clearly did not learn my lesson. '75 was my most exciting summer then, certainly better than a couple year’s previous as a sawmill hand at $60 take-home per week, goal to gather $400 and have The Adventures of Robin Hood on 16mm. Leave that account, however, for another day …

Monday, August 02, 2021

Book to Stage to Screen

 Son of Fury as Son of Dickens

Charles Dickens Surrounded by the Fabulous Characters He Created

Movies had to derive from something, or some things, among them literature and the stage. Virtually any film tells a tale already told, just a matter of what, how often, or from where. To pick a single writer who influenced pictures most profoundly, I propose Charles Dickens, whose specter looms over most all, period-set or not, England, greater Europe, or the Ozarks. He still impacts, structure and people-wise, on what has been, or is being, made. Characters in Dickens’ day were really characters. No one, it seemed, was ordinary. When did un-commonality among men and women cease? Dickens himself was like no one living then, or since. Convention was less observed because there was perhaps less convention to observe, or am I backwards? Growing up I knew doctors and lawyers who were bigger than life, each on top, or getting there, porterhouse steak at the Elk Lodge to show for success and life taken on their terms. Dickens creations were believable because these people I knew seemed right off his colorful pages. We wonder what became of very well-defined character actors that once thrived on stage, later in movies. Dickens being an actor himself based many of his creations on players he had known or observed, so naturally actors drew on characters that Dickens had devised. I read a Broadway play review from 1910 where one performance was identified as “Pickwickian.” No telling how often observers spotted on-stage borrowing from Dickens. He supplied a blueprint, I think, for much of what would be acted on screens, many a performer cut from molds Dickens-cast. Son of Fury is filled with such specimen, is far from being alone among movies for being so, but one where the application is most apparent and splendidly satisfying.

“Every writer of fiction, even though he may not adopt the dramatic form, writes, in effect, for the stage,” said Dickens, who regarded his characters as “real persons” to cement a lifelong affinity between the author and his readership. Dickens did reading tours wherein he portrayed the hundreds of personalities accumulated by his novels. Acting was second only to writing for Dickens’ fascination. He kept it up upon gaining fame, wistful at having missed a life spent on stages and having “the public at my feet” (as if that wasn't achieved by the novels). Such magnificent ego, Dickens raking in wealth as to put plum puddings on each day’s table, feasting multitudes that were friends and neighbors (plus ten children he sired). Dickens wanted to be a presence in every home and became so. His novels were popular beyond modern capacity to grasp. Most were serialized in magazines. Fans used to chase down mail carriers to get theirs first or gather at taverns where someone shared aloud the latest chapter. This was help for those illiterate, but knew what they liked. Many learned to read just so they could read Dickens. The author often composed letters in the voice of his characters, becoming “Wilkins McCawber,” for instance, where a point might be better made through that memorable figure from David Copperfield. Dickens would walk fifteen to twenty miles through London nights to dial down from writing rigor of the day so he might return home well spent and get some sleep. I’m told there were four authors who achieved immortality above all the rest: Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain, this consensus from those who know better our literary past, at least better than I could hope to.

Edison Marshall Bags More Big Game

Son of Fury
did not per se derive from Dickens, but sure plays like it did. Source novel was by Edison Marshall, who wrote a whopping forty-eight novels besides this one, having been talented, lucky, at least motivated enough to make a living off books from earliest on, as in comparative youth just out of WWI uniform. Think of discipline required to write 49 novels, and Marshall was a high adventurer as well, once tracking a “man-killing tiger,” then grizzly bears (aren’t they supposed to be the worst kind?), plus “the wild ox of Malaya” (which I assume there was more than one of, unless “the” really means the). Marshall and wife moved to Augusta, GA, lived a high life, of which he said best, “I went after the two big prizes --- fame and fortune --- and I got them both.” Would he care that posterity sort of forgot his works? If plum puddings were any criteria, I’d say no. Besides, he wrote Son of Fury, and that will do for my eternal vote. The book was originally Benjamin Blake, which I tried reading, 443 pages, thus fidget, then abandon, as who wouldn’t prefer 98 minutes to tell this story? I read slow besides, especially where not fully engaged, which I wasn’t by Benjamin Blake, narrative sprawling and my focus dimming. Incidents differ much between book and film, always to advantage of the film, which was screen-written by Philip Dunne, who like any scripter that adapted from novels had to hear “The book was better” from any number who probably never read the book. Dunnes of the business bore burden that was unwieldy tomes they were charged with turning into coherent films. Benjamin Blake reminded me of plowing through whole of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae to realize the 1953 movie dramatized but a portion of what went to unpardonable length in print. You can tell a phony by reflex they have to malign movies in favor of source books. Two different arts, each with much to appreciate and enjoy.

Still, it’s concept and basic ideas that count, and we must credit authors with those, but where or from whom did studio scribes get recognition for yeoman’s work their thankless lot? Viewers gave scant attention except to H’wood writers family related, or hailing from hometowns. Tyrone Power paid what he thought was a complement to Dunne by citing “Nice words” in Son of Fury’s script. How’s that for praise but faint? A Power or anyone who spoke dialogue figured same came from jigsaws that were screenplays. The things were puzzling, as in pages added, yanked out, different colored to designate changes made overnight. By the time a movie finished, scripts looked run over by a trolley. Then there were directors, stars, bootblacks .. claiming they had rewritten what was lousy by their inexpert estimation. I’d drink to excess like so many writers were this my daily grind, or play dumb tricks on fellow sufferers as “Shmucks with Underwoods” were wont to do. But then I wonder how much better Zanuck had it. Bucks stopped at his desk, DFZ the final fixer of all sick scripts. Did he see himself as anything more than a cobbler who got last lick at shoes? I read his memos and think how brilliant this man was. So who walked up and told him that? --- nobody I figure, because the only ones who knew were minions under his heel, and he’d not trust praise from them. Besides, what did a Son of Fury matter? Just another crotchet of action, exotica, Tyrone Power doing what he does to expectation of fans who’d seen approximate same before and were ready to spring paid admission for more. Still, there were standards to meet, and Zanuck took those seriously. By what was Son of Fury by studio estimate in comparison with How Green Was My Valley? That was one DFZ might be stopped on the street to take bows for (Best Picture of the Year!, so why have I seen How Green once and Son of Fury dozens of times?).

When a film was new, it was epochal, but not for long. Fruit doesn’t last either, no matter how ripe or cherry red it starts out being. I bought bananas two days ago that will never get ate, just because the market has prettier ones now. Studios knew a public’s fascination was brief, and so again, why attach undue importance to any one of offerings? No wonder so many looked upon Academy Awards as jokes, except of course those who wanted an Academy Award all their own. No worry though, because Son of Fury was not and never intended to be a world-beater, but where you look at ads and publicity and realize the thing is going to come and go like last month’s Collier’s, well, one could cry. I remember when the monster magazines would print a lavish promo from back when some chiller off late shows was spanking new, and I’d think, wow, Dead Man’s Eyes was a big deal once. Here is the thing: They were all big deals once. By the time Son of Fury first came my way in the early seventies, it was … what’s the cliché term … chopped liver. There was a UHF channel in the town where I attended school. They had a Fox package, expired, only they didn’t send all the prints back, Son of Fury among laggers. Got to where I would call them in the afternoon and “request” it for that night. Like asking the radio outlet to play a Top 40 favorite, except this was a full-length feature. But what did they care? Broadcast time had to be filled, so why not with Son of Fury? A station in Charlotte did Sunday morning movies with animal themes, My Friend Flicka one week, Thunderhead --- Son of Flicka the next. Somehow Son of Fury turned up. I asked a friend who worked there. He said they thought it was about son of “Fury,” the horse. Oh, but to bring back befuddlement that was UHF in antiquity.

It was the people whose loyalty to film was forever. Would we, if given authority, have allowed Hollywood’s past to deteriorate or be destroyed? Best custodian for movies was always the fans, but they did not have a voice. I watched some of Nightmare Alley last night, from Criterion on Blu-Ray. They had to use a surviving 35mm print for the transfer, Fox’s negative dealt out years ago. How was a thing like this permitted to happen? Had that 35mm not been at UCLA, we’d have really been up a crick. Alright, so back to topic re fan fealty. You Tube has a 1979 episode of Merv Griffin, also a Mike Douglas show, each with Gene Tierney the principal guest. We would have called Merv and Mike “fanboys” had we used such annoying terminology then, as both revered a film past in ways we have lost. To sit beside Gene Tierney and converse with her was an undoubted highpoint in the careers of these men. Mike Douglas was born in 1920, Merv Griffin in 1925. Each would have come upon Laura at impressionable age. They are carried utterly away by Gene Tierney's presence. Mike even serenades his guest by singing the Laura theme, having done so long ago as vocalist for Kay Kyser’s band. Further magic of a 1944-45 moment that we can scarcely calculate: the impact of Laura’s music (by David Raksin). I spoke with Conrad Lane about this. He was as much transported by Laura as anyone, recalls well an RCA Red Seal soundtrack album he bought in August 1945 (flip side: music from Universal’s Flesh and Fantasy). Then there was Dick Haymes’ recording of the Main Theme, the 78 of which Conrad also had.

A most “electrifying” scene in Laura? Conrad says it was when Tierney enters her apartment halfway through the film to find Dana Andrews as “Mark McPherson” asleep in her chair. Merv Griffin plays that portion in his lookback with Gene, so we can assume many including Merv got a same jolt as Conrad. Griffin and Douglas clearly count Laura among defining experiences of moviegoing life. Never mind “moviegoing” … let’s just say “life.” So giddy as to often interrupt Gene, she simply talks through her hosts to conclude points she’s making. Tierney was there to promote Self-Portrait, her just-released memoir, point of the book to pre-empt unauthorized explore of mental illness the actress long had, and now freely discussed for promotion purpose. Talk shows were gentler arenas then, as were perhaps all places, so Tierney has a soft pillow to sit upon, that is until a next guest Griffin introduces, of all people Cornel Wilde, Gene’s one-time co-star of Leave Her To Heaven. Merv wants to pursue ongoing topic of Golden Days, but Cornel will have none of it. “What Golden Days?” he asks. Tierney reminds him of all the money they made as Wilde looks back instead on Zanuck having never liked him and him not liking Zanuck. Griffin mentions “that extraordinary film” Leave Her To Heaven, a balloon Wilde pops, “It was an ordeal for me to make it,” to which Gene reproofs, “You must never say that about a picture that was successful. It just isn’t done.”

At-Center Dudley Digges Takes Character Acting Command

Back to Son of Fury. What of that title --- could it have been improved upon? I read where the idea was Zanuck’s and he would “suggest” it to East Coast Headquarters. I emphasize suggest for those who imagine DFZ did not suggest, but ordered, all procedures at TCF. May-be true so far as production, but soon as that was accomplished, it was EC-HQ that made all decisions, such decisions, including a release title, final ones. Was Son of Fury a best choice, considering its relative obscurity since 1942? We all have films to champion that a majority ignore. Did TCM ever run Son of Fury? Most audiences for my 16mm print were unfamiliar with it. An outdoor showing to a church retreat in 1978 was taken on trust, and the fact I ran Disney’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow (culled from Ichabod and Mr. Toad) as a warm-up. There seems a pall over Son of Fury because of hardship and bad ends each principal faced, sort of a Misfits in knee breeches. There is also cruelty and violence in abundance, Tyrone Power knocked cold from a first reel onward, and often. Power was tarred by a brush tagged “Matinee Idol,” as if this were not an honorable estate. John Drew and Maurice Costello of a previous century came of similar cloth. Not a flattering example, but John Wilkes Booth was a romantic idol on afternoon stages before homicidal impulses swept him up. Power strove always to improve, sought “range” of sort his public did not need or want, him unimpressed by what he could do that so few could as effectively. Power and idol kin were needed to anchor studio programs during a Classic Era, character support dependent upon lead men to serve as their opposites. To best be singular, eccentric, odd man or woman out, takes a Tyrone Power as counterweight for us to identify with, and aspire to, though records are replete with ones in the audience whose mirror image revealed more a Peter Lorre or ZaSu Pitts, and maybe we should admire these viewers for knowing their own limits. Otherwise, a Dudley Digges or Elsa Lanchester are but oddities acting in concert or opposition to other oddities, a vacuum from which none could stand out.

Again At Center Dudley Digges on Broadway

Baddest Aristocrat Sanders Prepares to Take Down Another Opponent

Dudley Digges then. He is a highlight in Son of Fury, Dickension as the author might so easily have conceived him. Digges had been around since seeming Creation, a face that might register any emotion save glee. “Character” was the fence that confined him, as what else could Digges begin to be accepted at? Dudley Digges surely dreamed of a morning he might wake up and be Tyrone Power, just as Power hoped he could approach Digges for color and conviction, but would either have been well-served by such role-reverse? Digges had scratched his way slowly up, beginning in small parts, but showing more aptitude as George Arliss’ stage manager, a job at which he proved too good, Arliss not of a mind to forfeit backstage assist just to have another actor to play against. Digges realized he would get nowhere as an actor with Arliss and so struck out alone, his 1919 legit breakthrough (after years effort) in John Ferguson, where he’d not be the title figure, but “a cowardly, braggart, oily tradesman.” Digges and Tyrone Power would feed upon one another to register in Son of Fury, oily and water so to speak. Eccentric Elsa Lanchester needed Power to represent what for her character is a fleeting vision of romance. Same down the character line: John Carradine a refugee from debtor’s prison whose face was mutilated by captors, him the cracked reflection of Power. Then George Sanders the brute heavy who can never be attractive to a woman and hates Power because he is. Son of Fury was occasion for Sanders to put real physical strength behind his villainy. It’s almost implausible having Power defeat him at the end. Melodrama, steeped heaviest in contrasts and conflict, was policy upheld through literature, the stage, and pictures, a broadest and most satisfying category for reading or watching, a hot wire to emotions not disposed toward nuance. Son of Fury places outstanding from that noble tradition, but what are chances Disney will get it out on Blu-Ray? They too might think it was a son of Fury the horse, that is, if any of them could recall Fury the horse.
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