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Monday, January 24, 2022

50's Family Under Siege


The Family Secret (1951) Has Plenty To Hide

A Santana Picture for Columbia release, one of a handful Humphrey Bogart's company produced, but he did not star in. Columbia had gone deep into business with independents, Variety pointing out extent in 7/25/51 report: "Of about 55 pix slated for release during 1951-52, over 20 will be made by other than the lot's salaried producers." Columbia's deal with most indies was straightforward. The company would supply half of financing and guarantee the other half loaned by banks, for which they'd get half of profits after recovery of investment, plus a distribution fee. Stanley Kramer and Sam Katzman supplied most of A's and B's, respectively, while balance of outside product came from Edward Small, Louis de Rochemont, Harold Hecht-Burt Lancaster, and Santana. Peers that impressed Bogart were used for The Family Secret, thus John Derek from Knock On Any Door, and Lee J. Cobb, late of Sirocco, these also of Santana label. The Family Secret might have fit Bogart as lawyer dad with a son who's committed murder, but the piece was fairly enclosed, its outcome foregone thanks to Code requirement.

Still, Family's situation is one that compels, and that doubtless drew Bogart and producing Robert Lord to what was essentially a Playhouse 90 before that anthology took up mantle of such dramatics on TV. John Derek was a pompadour heartthrob Columbia groomed in the wake of breakout in Knock On Any Door, Bogart having given him that break, but Variety pointed out his character in The Family Secret as "unsympathetic." Cobb is understated and most effective in concerned father mode. There are swipes at television and too-loud swing music, plus Derek's best girl, Jody Lawrance, driving a hot rod. Young folk were still of Andy Hardy's generation circa 1951, change being just around a rock and rolling corner. We don't linger on collateral damage Derek's belated confession brings on, but it's considerable, and audiences were probably as annoyed by PCA cow-towing then as latter-day watchers would be now. The Family Secret collected a modest $283K in domestic rentals, and Bogart would sell his share in the negative to Columbia a few years after, along with kit-caboodle of Santana interests. The Family Secret is available in a very nice On-Demand DVD.

Monday, January 17, 2022

What a Sleeper Was in 1949


The Window Goes Places New To Noir

From a simple pair of scissors do sleepers sometimes awake. RKO did a crackerjack job making a hit of what they spent a mere $696K to create. Fact the merchandise was so good was a help, The Window adapted from a Cornell Woolrich story. He had, would continue to, supply grist for noir and thriller wheels. Let go the fact that Woolrich himself had so rough a road to hoe. Read his life and wonder how he managed so much that was fine in short stories and novellas. I’m starting to wonder if there was a curse upon ones that wrote for pulps. Money wasn’t so good, certainly not enough, as neither was fame, but where would movies have been without the Cornell Woolrichs in back of them? The Window is murder through witnessing eyes of a boy who otherwise cries wolf and so is disbelieved. It defined for 1949 a word-of-mouth must see. More profit came of The Window than RKO realized for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or The Big Steal of the same year.

“Sleeper” as byword for something discovered by a public instead of foisted upon them by publicity was a term promiscuously used, before and since 1949. Surrounding seasons had seen the label attached to Jungle Patrol, The Doctor and the Girl, The Return of October, and The Lawless, so easy to see it was wishful thinking, as who recalls those, except possibly The Lawless (1950), which slept indeed as patrons spent elsewhere. I’m betting Terry Turner ran promotion for The Window, as result bespoke his genius. Ads and pub used the scissors, a motif central to the film’s killing that propels action (Ruth Roman the user). A weapon as central image juiced merchandising for Twelve Angry Men and of course Psycho in years after, shorthand always for violence and suspense to be got for buying your ticket in.

Anomaly … well, maybe not as this was RKO after Howard Hughes took over … saw The Window getting a sneak preview at the RKO-Hillcrest Theatre in Los Angeles on June 1, 1948, nearly a year before the film was released. Hughes had a habit of holding product back until he had an opportunity to vet each offering personally. Based on his erratic schedule and indifference to distribution policy as set by underlings, this meant many a feature sat on shelves indefinitely. I sometimes wonder if there are RKO movies yet that we haven’t seen. The Window at its 6/1/48 unveil, a totally unknown quantity for which the title tipped off nothing, got huzzahs from its cold-call audience, “patrons were sitting on the edge of their seats all the way, and frequent gasps at the crucial moments and the rousing applause they gave at the finish proves what an emotional wallop this picture has,” this from The Radio Flash as reported by staffer Perry Lieber on 6/4/48, The Window noted also for “a compactness which adds vastly to the film’s intense quality.” This sleeper wouldn’t wake for nearly a year, even as favorable buzz spread from that first sneak at Hillcrest. Why wait to release what everyone knew early on was powerful product? Only Hughes knew, and he wasn’t talking.

Novelty inherent was letting a small boy be central to the threat, as in nobody buys his story … except the killers, a conceit not softened as these two (Roman and Paul Stewart) are intent on getting rid of little Bobby Driscoll by quickest means however foul. Bobby had been a moppet for Disney, lately in Song of the South, So Dear To My Heart, being sung to by Roy Rogers in Fun and Fancy Free. To put him amidst gritty environ of New York tenements, his life in the balance (literally … there are rooftop, high-set perils), this a scary depart from rules 40’s viewership were used to. The Window sold what really was novelty for its time. Parents play clueless support, unresponsive to the boy’s warning, as are police, the child utterly alone in trying to save his own life and bring murderers to account.

The Window
is genuinely suspenseful in a modern sense for the bold set-up, surprising, or maybe not so much, for attitude of those who would nurture at a time when upbringing was a job conducted very different from what we now expect or would support. Where father says “punish,” he often as not means a whipping, or, as a friendly police officer jokes, a “shellacking like my old man used to give me.” Kids getting tough love from Dad, with Mom approval, was accepted practice in an era where corporal discipline held sway. Yes, it was common to send a child to his/her room without supper. Here it is Bobby banished to bed without lunch or the evening meal. I worried as much for what pop Arthur Kennedy might do as whatever Ruth Roman/Paul Stewart had in mind. Latter pair have abducted the boy at one point and hustle him roughly into a cab, the driver thinking nothing of it … just parenting as usual as he sees it. Cop on the beat that Driscoll yells to is moved not at all by his plea for rescue, warning instead of the tanning he’ll get later for disobeying what appears to be his parents, but of course are not. As Lillian Gish said later in Night of the Hunter, it surely was a hard world for little things.

I wonder if seeing The Window obliged parents to go gentler with offspring. Were children traumatized by having seen it? Something tells me fewer than what might be imagined, as youth were undoubtedly tougher then. Something about Driscoll’s character tells us he will think his way out of the trap, as surprisingly, pleasingly, he kills off lethal pursuer that is Paul Stewart, and will all but get a key to the city for his job well done. Suppose Disney regretted the loan of Bobby Driscoll to RKO for such intense workout? And yet The Window may have OK’ed Bobby shooting a pirate full in the face for a following year’s go at Treasure Island via Disney/RKO, a scene so graphic it had to be trimmed from a 1975 reissue to enable a G rating. I don’t know when a child’s fear was so utilized to sell a film than with The Window. Ads really exploit Driscoll’s terror and the menace Ruth Roman and Paul Stewart represent. This could almost be a horror movie were merchandising to be believed. I picture children, ones timid enough, keeping away or being forbade to go, and yet audiences, if we accept modern speculation re the era, were ready to embrace stronger mix by 1949, as The Window scored well in a year when most RKO releases lost money, a year in fact where most of industry outlay lost money.

The Window
borrowed a semi-doc leaf from Fox’s book, at least to extent of shoot in Gotham which put RKO crew on site during November-December 1947. Though story was set in sweltering summer, Ann noticed as we watched that Bobby Driscoll, and some of other kids, wore long sleeves, which now I understand in view of chilly days they worked. Realism push for American films was meant in part to bring us in line with street scenes as captured by Italians and others of the continent. Director Tetzlaff, formerly of behind camera work going back to silents, was for telling The Window on visual terms, while others of the crew were lately off RKO Pathe’s newsreel division, that unit having been sold to Warners. This all enabled stark look of backgrounds to much enhance conviction, the postwar cycle getting closer to life, if on melodrama terms, than studio-bound output had. You could better believe far-fetched tales, pulpy ones even, where told on streets we might recognize from daily commute.

The Window as location made and detail of those behind it are described in welcome detail by Richard Koszarski in his recent Keep ‘Em In The East: Kazan, Kubrick, and the Postwar New York Film Renaissance (Columbia University Press), a latest in the author’s splendid series of books revolved around filmmaking in the Northeast (Paramount Astoria, Fort Lee companies etc.). Nobody beats Koszarski when it comes to this kind of research and result. His work sure enlivened the Window watch for me. Older transfers of The Window were serviceable, improved at least from C&C 16mm prepared for syndication in 1956 when the RKO library went first to television. Warners has lately issued a Blu-Ray to bring out more of values The Window had, but were hidden, since first-runs. It is a revelation to up-tick regard for the film and make fresh viewing a must.

NOTE AT RIGHT: Bobby Driscoll appears in person to greet attendees at Cleveland's RKO Palace.

Monday, January 10, 2022

A Would-Be Precode "Bat"


Miss Pinkerton (1933) Is Blondell as Lead Sleuth

Old house mystery gets near horrific preserve of Doctor X, utilizing sets, if not two-colors, of that also 1932 Warners release. Joan Blondell issues screams (are they really hers?) to make Fay Wray's sound like bird calling, and there's enough skulking figures to put Cat and The Canary in the shade. So for all this, shouldn't Miss Pinkerton play better? Unfortunately, it's a precode that misses --- they can't all burn off the roof --- but for 66 minutes it lasts, Miss P gets by as half-heart reprise of The Bat, and by the same author, Mary Roberts Rinehart. Starring Joan Blondell may be a best current reason to watch, this an occasion (there weren't so many) when she was the clear lead and men for once (in this case, George Brent), had to be her sidekick. Precode aspects are muted; the thing could have been done verbatim three years later without losing anything other than JB shucking her nurse's uniform for bed in an opening reel. In fact, the yarn was remade as The Nurse's Secret in 1941, with Lee Patrick in the Blondell part, this one coming near the end of a WB row of nurse-solves-murder B's.

Monday, January 03, 2022

Would DEVOTION Please Ones Devoted to the Brontes?


Literary History As Warners Would Have It

Show of hands for Bronte Society members! There are many, worldwide, more than belong to any movie fan clutch. The Brontes go back past 170 years. Still you’d think they were alive for reverence they inspire. Charlotte (Jane Eyre), Emily (Wuthering Heights), support members (Anne, tragic brother Branwell) remain objects of feverish research and veneration. Think what we do picks nits? Try going against a Bronte scholar and see how long you last. I lately finished a terrific book called The Bronte Myth, by Lucasta Miller, who tells us for 288 pages how fascination for the family never ended, scarcely paused, after last of siblings Charlotte packed off to eternity (1855). The author reviews various films spun off Bronte output, the 1944 Jane Eyre (but oddly not the 1934 version with Virginia Bruce and Colin Clive), Wuthering Heights (1939), and most notorious to her thinking, Devotion, the Warners Bronte bio, finished in 1943 but not released until 1946. We know the latter for Ida Lupino playing Emily, Olivia DeHavilland as Charlotte, and Nancy Coleman as Anne, Arthur Kennedy being Branwell. We can enjoy Devotion or not for having less at stake re accuracy, less that is unless one regards this literary family as sacred figures, which for many they very much are.

Lucasta Miller says Devotion “twisted the facts without aspiring to any form of higher truth … submerged the sisters in a bath of romantic and wildly inaccurate slush …” Not unexpectedly, I am here to defend Devotion, having re-visited it twice in as many weeks, and ready to take up cudgels in Warner’s defense. 
Firstly, too much bow to historic characters will stultify your movie. Ticket buyers are seldom there to deepen knowledge, especially of schoolbook sort. And what were the Brontes to a mass audience in 1946? Devotion’s theatrical trailer does not even mention them, and neither did posters. There had been popularity of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre on screen, but interest was for romance and stars, not source novelists. If these sisters can’t be ginned up for the sake of drama and conflict, why tell their saga at all? Simple enough to plug Brontes into Warners’ narrative formula, and let fans have it or leave it. Purists would revile whatever Hollywood attempted along these lines, piling vitriol on liberties necessarily taken. Devotion was held from release for three years. Stills had shown up in 1943 fan publications, so those who cared knew the Bronte story was waiting in wings. Critics remembered too and laid for Devotion until finally it floated in upon postwar waves. “A three-year-old strip of damp bark off Warners’ wartime backlog,” said James Agee, who amusingly called it “Little Women on an overcast day.”

Thackeray Played by Greenstreet? I Can Buy It

Here was where mainstream critics showed off cultivation by sticking pins in poor donkey that was Devotion, a movie meant to be nothing other than triangle fireworks spun off combo of Ida Lupino and Olivia De Havilland, “strange sisters” squabbling over dubious prize that was Paul Henried, while possibly sinister Sydney Greenstreet observes. These people were going to play to their personas no matter what, so being Bronte sisters was good as essay of the Andrews sisters so far as image-conscious actresses thought. Did anyone ask Lupino-DeHavilland-Coleman if they read or studied the triumvirate? They’d no doubt reply yes, but I’ll guess investigation went no further than scripts driven by WB messenger to their respective digs or agent office. As to “Fat Man” Sydney Greenstreet (you wonder how such billing jabbed this distinguished player, time after humiliating time), there was forever expectation he’d be up to Casper Gutman tricks again, The Maltese Falcon having encased him in casting concrete. Greenstreet portrays William Makepeace Thackeray for a mid-point extended cameo to lend humor/color to otherwise solemn Devotion proceedings, yet publicity/ads saw him purely on Gutman terms (“the “Friend” … they couldn’t fool him --- they couldn’t trust him!”). Such was bolt and key to confine Gold Age contract talent. You had to pay into Devotion to enjoy what was a delightful departure from norm the Thackeray part was for Greenstreet.

has resonance and Bronte-relevance few could have seen coming in 1946. Charlotte and Emily of the real-life clan had long been co-opted by a nascent feminist movement that gathered steam for decades to precede and follow Devotion. These were role model women for many, and even Warners knew it needed dynamic and respected stars to play them. Heroines for the sisterhood came no better picked than Ida Lupino and Olivia DeHavilland, as fates turned out. Lupino after Devotion would begin a directing career unique to actresses hitherto limited to acting. She’d not live long enough to enjoy huzzahs of Blu-Ray box sets and celebration as a history maker, but make history she did, so yes, put her to equal stature with Emily Bronte, that is whenever we are finally ready to assign movies respect equal to literature (a day not yet arrived). Regard too Olivia DeHavilland, the rebel slave who broke contract chains at Warners, did her walkout, took it to courts, beat the Brothers soundly. Did Charlotte Bronte on her best day show such spunk? Devotion can be viewed in terms of two modern women staging and winning struggles not unlike the Brontes might have done given greater advantage than was possible in a first half of the nineteenth century. If you’re going to pitch Devotion to a current audience, pitch it this way.

Everything relative to the Bronte’s “Haworth” village was mocked-up by Warner in-studio recreation, what with indoor moors, a parsonage constructed within stage walls, inside plus exterior, little of Haworth done outdoors save one shot of a carriage driven off. This was reality of war years, but so artfully done that lovers of artifice (Me! Me!) might prefer it to a real thing. Besides, the real Haworth of so long ago was more a nightmare than real ones to disturb sleep. The place was rotten with disease, mostly “consumption” (TB), life expectancy an appalling twenty-four years. 40% of children were dead by age six. The water which people drank seeped through graves with dead barely laid beneath heavy stones. Paterfamilias Bronte as vicar sometimes conducted eight funerals in a single day. An honest Bronte depiction would have been better produced by Val Lewton (a swell idea actually). The Bronte parsonage was fronted by a cemetery choked to capacity, while the back opened to spooky moors that inspired Emily to write Wuthering Heights. She was understood, at least remembered, as a mystic driven more by supernatural force than creative impulse to inspire the radical book that Wuthering Heights proved to be.

Nothing To Suggest Period Setting Here

Chicago Goes Whole-Hog With Saucy Sell

For that matter, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre proved hot stuff for its time, many convinced that proper young women should not pen such violent emotion. Jane Eyre proved to be the big seller in its day however, Charlotte received by London literary circles, embraced by notables, though one hostess noted her “shattered” teeth, chill reminder that in those dental-deprived days, precious few held onto healthy mouths for long. But then that was case also for many stars of a Hollywood to come, lovely teeth yes, but too often not their own. Devotion takes expected course in letting Charlotte/Emily succumb to varied loves and be disappointed by them, just like in the movies. What drove WB more than history was their own successful string of sister showdowns that so far encompassed In This Our Life and The Hard Way, DeHavilland having starred on one, Lupino in the other. Maybe it was parted sneer that made Warners give Lupino billing over DeHavilland, Paul Henried also as object of rivalry, DeHavilland placed third, a sorry spot for someone who’d served Warners well for over ten years. Should she not have placed first, if not alongside Lupino over the title? Maybe that’s what made Olivia cuss so colorfully in a blooper from Devotion that WB ran for Christmas parties in 1946.

Lupino gets also the big “entrance” scene so that we know from a start that Emily will be our focus, even as Charlotte dominates for a second half, plus getting most daring of content, being kissed forcibly by Henried (“You are fortunate, Miss Charlotte, that I am not a woman beater”) and Victor Francen as married mentor at a girl’s academy who steers Charlotte into a carnival’s tunnel of love. Director Curtis Bernhardt said years later that he liked doing Devotion because he was “interested” in the Brontes, which may well have separated him from most others present, while Nancy Coleman recalled from years forward that Lupino and DeHavilland got along well after initial clashing, to a point where they called afternoon teas to recognize shared Britishness (OdeH parents were of Brit origin and Lupino was raised there). Coleman, being American, was not invited to the teas, but did not care. Extras did however, and so staged their own teas specifically to invite Nancy and get the snob stars’ goat. What a beehive, or hornet nest, was Classic Era picture-making. Devotion can be had from Warner Archive, could use a fresh transfer, someday perhaps to High-Def, though I can’t imagine it being high on Warners’ priority list.
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