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Saturday, December 25, 2021

Another James Bond Christmas


007 Peaks with On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

Resolved: To not watch the last five minutes of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ever again. And to cover eyes where clips show up on You Tube. Some say James Bond ended with this one. I would not have agreed before, but now sort of do. In a world of my choosing, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would finish with 007 and Tracy headed off for their honeymoon, followed by the title, James Bond Will Not Be Back. Come back for what? Diamonds Are Forever, then a flock with Roger Moore, downhill further from there? Seems to me the series summitted with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. They would not come near its quality again. A strong opinion I know as later Bonds remain enjoyable, but this one … well, it is the best, as in Bond and Beyond, whatever hype pumped later Bonds. I wonder how many rose so high as OHMSS by estimation of 007 fans, plus casual viewers not necessarily disposed to the now sixty-year cycle. George Lazenby is easy getting used to today where he was not in 1969. I boycotted On Her Majesty’s Secret Service then because it had him instead of Connery, a foolish gesture on my part. It was the mid-80’s before a visiting collector brought down his 16mm scope print and schooled me. Initial pass on OHMSS had indeed been a gross error.

Lazenby is entrenched enough in my affection to push an imagined Sean Connery right out of qualification. I don’t think the latter would have done so effectively this stage of Bond as Lazenby so effortlessly did. I say effortlessly because GL got through the picture, by his own reckoning, on sheer nerve, confident he had the goods and not needing more than a single take, so the actor said. And all the more remarkably … he wasn’t even an actor then, but a male model and TV commercial pitchman. Never mind Daniel Craig playing the “young, inexperienced” Bond in Casino Royale. Lazenby did that to nines when he was but 28, all the better because he really was inexperienced … and as Lazenby admitted, quite immature. Here was ideal, if inadvertent, casting. No one, including, and especially, Connery, could have touched what George Lazenby achieved here. Never had we, or would we, empathize so with James Bond. He is vulnerable in an earnest, believable way, not as fashionable dark wanderings Craig and self-consciously edgy writers later imposed. Lazenby took it on the chin from high-trained co-stars who let him know daily how green he was, so yes, he responded on arrogant, defensive terms. At 28, I dare say I would have behaved worse. Lazenby recalls well the mistakes he made. It doesn’t take much prodding for him to recite them.

Becoming Bond
(2017) was a pleasing profile that told his story, hilarious at times. George certainly does not take himself seriously, whatever his conduct fifty-two years ago. There’s a You Tube interview with Diana Rigg, circa six-seven years back, where she said he was “ill-equipped’ to act, that “I was there to steer him through and give it some gravitas.” Problems with Lazenby were not forgot, at least by her. “He was really difficult … throwing his weight around … He was definitely the architect of his own demise as a film star.” Rigg acknowledged that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was by now a better regarded film, although she did not find it so in hindsight. What’s interesting is the fact she was relied upon to coach Lazenby, at least to a point where she lost patience with him. The same seems to have happened with director Peter Hunt, who ultimately communicated with his James Bond through intermediaries. After more than a half-century, it’s hard to know fully what went on, most principals and crew since gone, accounts a veritable Rashomon of mixed memories.

If Lazenby failed to appreciate his role at the time, there was Sean Connery who had come to a same impasse, having dropped out after a contracted five and not willing to re-up for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It was said that Saltzman and Broccoli were still on planes to-from Connery’s home just three weeks ahead of a start date, begging him still to come aboard and spare them having to use a neophyte. Tally of Bonds and how each felt toward the role is instructive: Connery grew to resent limits 007 placed upon him, Lazenby let it slip away through miscommunication and poor judgment, Roger Moore saw a good thing, was comfortable within the Bond family, and did outside pictures successfully. Timothy Dalton may have had mixed emotions, but was replaced before he could much express them. Pierce Brosnan loved Bond since a lad and longed to play him, would still be doing so today had makers let him, was bitter to be turned out. Daniel Craig seemed morose toward the part from a start, certainly played the character in that mode. It got tedious well before he announced quitting. I suspect five, let alone seven Bonds (as Moore did) would be enough to tax any actor’s endurance, especially with risk and general discomfort always a factor, like boys coming home every day from play with skinned knees or sprains. How long would it take to get over the novelty of being James Bond? And how much pay would you need to carry on doing something you had grown to dread?

This Is Cinerama? It Might As Well Be For Scenery and Movement OHMSS Captures

It always struck me that James Bond was sort of a reprieve for Cinerama’s discarded travelogue format. No series took us so far afield, each a virtual trip around the world as it were. As stories got flimsier and more repetitive, the sights were hopped up to compensate; just think of places you would see even if there wasn’t much by way of story to look at, James Bond a must to watch on very wide screens so as to drink in miracles of nature and man’s enhancement of it. From twenty-five in the series so far, only five are not anamorphic, which imagine what damage seventies and eighties television, then early VHS tape, inflicted upon visuals. 007 would do or die upon narrative and cropped action alone for this long haul, relieved only when new-introduced laser discs rescued the group from full-frame oblivion. Now we have the lot on 4K, accessible via streaming, and to watch them on a large enough home screen gives an almost three-panel effect as with Cinerama when it opened windows to the world. Even a blandest Bond can look spectacular where proper presentation fills the void.

Sharp Reproof From M Causes Hypersensitive 007 To Resign

Who was James Bond by 1969? He was, by public accord, Sean Connery, free by then to do Shalako, The Red Tent, and The Molly Maguires, not ten cents of boxoffice between them. We saw Shalako in 1968 and wondered if Sean had gone off his nut. This was progress from 007? You Only Live Twice had been dry-gulched by Casino Royale, the latter so poor it might have turned viewers off Bond for keeps, at least those fooled into thinking it was part of the official series. Worse were YOLT receipts down from expectation Thunderball created, and now came On Her Majesty’s Secret Service crippled by the absence of Connery. The “spy craze” was meanwhile come and gone, most pretenders to Bond washed ashore and forgot. Less imitative, but knife-pointed at ethos of 007, was espionage told on harsh terms, drab and hopeless means by which any man ekes a living, particularly in the UK where austerity seemed not to have relaxed, at least so far as this new wave of spy downers told it. These cared little to compete with Bond, were in fact designed as anti-Bond, each a corrective to fantasy he represented. Some of us sat for The Deadly Affair in 1967 (on a combo with a Hammer at the Liberty), and yes, it did seem deadly then, years needed for me to grow into it. Same for the Harry Palmer group and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

Bond's Own Office Is No Lap of Luxury

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
took these into account by letting Bond be more the public servant taking sharp orders from M and even quitting his job in pique, this segment among most fascinating in all annals of 007. For a first and only time, we see Bond retreat from M’s office to his own, a four-wall nothing with passed down furniture, a corner file cabinet, and a nondescript bulletin board. Bond/Lazenby has come here to clear out his desk, collect effects, call 007 a day. We sense fully that luxury lifestyle has been mere pose, a means of getting close to the action and enemies. And yet Bond gambles on his own time at a posh hotel, and always wins. This was case, in fact, for a first scene where the master spy was introduced, Connery as 007 in Dr. No. He wins enough there to surely surpass whatever salary the British government tenders, and I often wondered why Bond did not chuck the Service altogether and become a pro gambler. Surely it would be more remunerative, less dangerous at the least. Majesty’s spartan office brings Bond very much in line with Harry Palmer, who was always spoiling for a raise or being belittled by bosses. We’d not expect Sean Connery to occupy a space like this even for a moment, but George Lazenby? Yes, that makes sense, him a beginner Bond not fully in command of his impulse and emotion, a Bond still being tested. It anticipates too the serious involvement to come with Tracy, and a marriage that will result. I don’t think we could have believed any of this from Connery.

Raise The Limit? I Have No Objection.

All This For a Night's Recreation ... So Why Be a Secret Agent?

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
can be treasured for supplying insight to what for this one occasion would be an alternate Bond, not merely an alternate actor playing him. Talk about bosses living high as drones go humble, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has Bond calling on M at his palatial home, “Quarterdeck,” with its ship’s bell at the door to herald arrivals. Don’t know if 007 called ahead, but he is not received like a guest, M occupied with his butterfly collection, making no effort to welcome his employee (what, no drink offered, nor invitation to sit among a roomful of plush furniture?). M lives like a country squire --- did he inherit wealth? --- because surely the Navy did not retire him to such elegance. I never had the impression that James Bond was highly paid. Chances are his salary level was not much above Harry Palmer’s. Wish we could have seen more of James Bond’s own residence during the Connery/Lazenby era, that is, the sixties. I bet it would have been little more than the flat lived in by the two government investigators looking into 1963's Children of the Damned. Now there was stripped down truth of what daily life looked like in sixties Britain, at least as I imagine it.

Here Is Where M Lives ...

... He Collects Butterflies.

Bond Enters Into What Must Have Been Unaccustomed Splendor For Him.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
to surprise of few fell way short of what You Only Live Twice earned, $9.1 million in domestic rentals less than half of what YOLT took. Worldwide total of $24.8 million was still profitable, but it was a longer haul getting there, according to Eon chief Michael Wilson in a look-back. Both Diamonds Are Forever and Live and Let Die would dwarf Majesty’s boxoffice as well, leading to diminished stature for OHMSS that would last decades. Rediscovery and reevaluation came slowly. A Bond fan could be a rebel Bond fan for choosing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as a best of 007. You Tube is rife with modern-day appreciations, virtually all from fans who were not there for 1969 dates but came to OHMSS via television or other home formats. One fifty-minute YT discussion has two who saw the film together as teenagers for the first time … on laser disc. They even hold up the record album-like sleeve. Varied comments over You Tube output describe “problematic” aspects of OHMSS, it being “filled with moments that are unacceptable now.” Still they like it, if somewhat skittish for saying so. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service might indeed be the Bond to modernly command a most dedicated following, fine by me as it increasingly plays finest of the so-far bunch.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Katzman Stages a Columbia Rumble


Juve Jungle Exposed in Rumble On The Docks (1956)

Sam Katzman does On The Waterfront with rock and roll and J.D. overlay. Jimmy Darren is the wayward youth who ties in with dock racketeers as Brando did, and keeps a telescope on his tenement roof rather than pigeons that decorated Waterfront's. So why not copy a thing that worked? Union v. mob yarns had become a 50's sub-genre, yet another torn off daily headlines. Rival street teens wear shirts emblazoned with name of respective gangs, which at least makes them easy to ID by cops, and simple for us to tell apart in title-pledged rumbling. "Rebels .. With Plenty Of Cause," said ads, which also referenced the "turbulent novel" on which Rumble was based. There's Freddie Bell and His Bellboys singing one called "Take The First Train Out Of Town," a highlight boosted big in the trailer. Come to find that Freddie and Bellboys performed Hound Dog pre-Elvis, and hearing their version inspired Presley to record the number himself.

J. Darren was Columbia's hope to resurrect James Dean and dazzle girlish stub-holders; must have worked, as they'd stick by Darren for nearly a decade. My trouble was always getting him mixed up with another of Columbia dreamboats, Michael Callan. As a pocket Waterfront, Rumble On The Docks serves fine, Katzman not the sort to overstate social message, and dishing enough fist-and-shiv to serve action appetites. His instincts were surely right, as Rumble On The Docks brought home gratifying $429K in domestic rentals, the best Katzman money that year outside an initial two rock and roll exploiters. Rumble On The Docks has played Sony's Movie Channel in crisp 1.85 and HD.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Republic's Hillbilly Hitchin' Post

Hoosier Holiday Will Always Belong To 1943

Country corn a-poppin' in this Republic bid for backwoods play, plus lower berths to be filled at urban sites. Hoosier Holiday was "another in a series of radio specials which the studio (Republic) has found lucrative in the hinterland bookings," said Variety, the studio's goal to serve first those theatres overlooked or ignored by the majors. Republic mined coin from homefront comedies, theirs an audience of increased radio listeners now that husbands and sons had left the hearth for combat. Popular enough air personalities could bring folks forth from home to see, in addition to hear, their favorites. Few of us know the Hoosier Hotshots, the Music Maids, or George D. Hay, aka "The Solemn Old Judge," but these were acts very much to be reckoned with in 1943, and combining them on a marquee was home listening's equivalent of a Grand Hotel (as to life being fair, or not, I checked availability of these acts on CD --- Amazon has plentiful Hoosier Hotshots, but nary a disc by the Music Maids). Moviegoing by the early 40's was first cousin to jukeboxes and radio, a Swing Era at its peak where every form of music got adapted to bandstand tempo. Many a downtown theatre went to stage show policy, movies less important than live performing of brassy instrumentals and song. Hoosier Holiday bled easily into this format to become mere extension of music performed live. The narrative couldn't matter less, something about farmer brothers seeking entree to battlefields, but persuaded they can serve Uncle Sam better by growing foodstuffs. To that add girl interest plus off-airwaves silliness toward fill-up of 65 minutes --- that is Hoosier Holiday in a nut shell, or more accurately, corn husk. If rarity is viewing criteria, Holiday fits well, being cast-off a half-century since TV runs diminished from early-50's release among "Jubilee Features" for syndication. Hoosier Holiday is owned now by Paramount, chances of their reviving it about a same as radio coming back to dominate home entertainment.

Monday, December 06, 2021

One That Is Gone As Gone Gets


What Becomes of Wonder Bar? (1934)

If Grand Hotel could do it for MGM, then why not this for Warners? The all-star concept needed stars, of which WB had less than MGM, so stock players were for this occasion elevated to mention alongside genuinely big names that were Kay Francis, unknowingly at summit from which there would be fast decline, Dick Powell, on ascent toward his peak, and Greatest Of Entertainers Al Jolson, a label you'd not detach even when recent ones of his were losing money. Jolson had bought Wonder Bar as a play and sold it and himself to WB at reduced rate, plus a percentage in what proved a wise move, as Wonder Bar took 1934 pennant, with only Here Comes The Navy ahead in terms of profit.

Wonder Bar wasn't recognized as a personal triumph for Jolson, thanks to his being part of a large ensemble and no single player in the end being able to claim credit for success of the film. But someone had been coaching Jolson, or he finally listened to pleas for restraint --- whatever --- the bombast was adjusted to room temp at last. He sings, dishes wisecracks, much of the latter blue beyond limit of soon-to-enforce Code authority, Wonder Bar another that got under lowering net with 3/34 release date (ahead of summer and PCA crackdown) and its negative unmolested since. Action revolves around Jolson's nightspot, into which six songs are introduced, two with Busby Berkeley overlay, others trilled by Al or Dick Powell. Berkeley's name was flash for the trailer and ads, his a common link to Gold Digging musicals that had replaced Al Jolson vehicles as reliable franchise.

Pressure was on BB for ideas to highlight Wonder Bar and increasing WB songfests that needed his spice. You could argue stress showing with outsize and on-too-long specialties here, and one could ask if Berkeley really preferred pork chops and watermelon of his Going To Heaven On A Mule to chorines that earlier ID'ed the Master's stuff. Considering that Wonder's is a Parisian bar, why would proprietor Jolson opt to black up for such ante-bellum hijinx as engaged here? At least one other name performer took brunt of the misplacement, Hal Le Roy entering Wonder Bar under credits in tie and tails, but seen only in blackface when dancing the Mule piece. A lot of patrons probably failed to recognize him in that context, as I nearly didn't. Going To Heaven On A Mule is a disrupt to style and setting of Wonder Bar and would have been better left to earlier Jolsons along lines of Mammy or Big Boy.

Wonder Bar
was easier cast with Jolson than co-stars less eager to work with him. Maybe word had got round of his behavior toward peers, and now with Al on perceived skids, they could hit back. Kay Francis was blunt to fan press that Jolson "was not recognized as a screen star," and that she wanted no part of Wonder Bar, but was obliged to show up anyway (this after Bette Davis turned down the role flat). Such candor would not have been countenanced by MGM, personalities at which wore their muzzles tighter. But then Metro wouldn't have put their talent to service of such rogue content as was rife in Wonder Bar. There is much of illicit sex, ethnic gags ramped beyond what even went before in WB comedies, plus murder gone unpunished. When Wonder Bar is put before audiences today, it is generally for shock rather than entertainment as conceived in 1934. And yet it's more entertaining than the Grand Hotel it copies and several Gold Diggers besides. Warner Archive has it on DVD. Sightings of Wonder Bar and other Jolsons have become rare indeed at TCM.
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