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Monday, February 27, 2023

Canon Fire #3 (Part Two)


Among the One-Hundred: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) --- Part Two

Fred stops by Bullard’s Drug Store, Midway Drugs a chain lately in possession. Too many grab at bargains from overdressed shelves, the war having put money in pockets and ways to waste it. Fred wants no part of this but pays respect to old man Bullard (Erskine Sanford), friend and mentor who has sold out but stays on to fill prescriptions. “Clarence (Sticky) Murkle” who once assisted Fred is now pit boss for Midway but hasn’t grown character, nor tendered war service. Too young? Doesn’t look it, so we assume another slacker or happy-to-be-so 4-F. Clarence observes “Nobody’s job is safe with all these servicemen crowding in,” to an attractive woman who reacts with silent contempt toward this runt presuming to be Fred’s equal. In fact, most of women and girls at Bullard’s/Midway stare after Fred with frank appreciation, there still being nothing like a man in uniform. Rat-faced store manager “Thorpe” (Howland Chamberlain) makes plain right away that Midway is under no legal obligation to give Fred back his job, but should they do so, the pay would be $32.50 a week. Thorpe is snide, dismissive, another who resents men like Fred who under proper circumstance would be his master. Little moments of humiliation are where The Best Years of Our Lives best captures reality of return to civilian life. So many soldiers were suddenly back, with too few jobs to distribute among them, Fred’s dilemma not unlike what Cagney’s “Eddie Bartlett” in The Roaring Twenties experienced home from trenches, seeking his old garage spot and being told they can no longer use him.

Al is wanted at the “Cornbelt Trust Company,” former boss “Mr. Milton” (Ray Collins), whom Al never calls by any other name, bearing gift of a personalized briefcase and big raise to commemorate Al’s return. Mr. Milton’s anxiety to have latter back on the job is almost unseemly, Al’s increased value based to degree on war service that depositors know about and trust Cornbelt the more for having this veteran among firm assets. Al will earn good, in fact better, money, his family secure in a lavish apartment, but he’ll also stay beneath Mr. Milton, the older man’s intentions good if unctuous toward a returned warrior he regards like a “younger brother.” We know Al saw frequent combat. He didn’t come by the sword and Japanese flag in a crap game. Al even warns Fred at one point that he knows plenty of tricks and how to “fight dirty.” Fredric March was forty-nine when The Best Years of Our Lives was released and looks it. We could wonder why Al never got past sergeant stripes as he seems like officer material. In fact, he could have sat this war out altogether and suffered no reprisal, same as March himself did. Latter had served as an artillery lieutenant in the first war (and interestingly, began his post-WWI career as a banker). Al has least of issues rehabilitating, being mature and a seasoned family man, but we worry about his drinking to excess and wonder if Milly might have increased problems over that, Myrna Loy well cast given such circumstance. Best Years could be the Nora Charles story followed to point where Nick’s indulge must be seriously addressed. Would veteran services at the time have offered rehab options?

Homer’s drama is unsettling enough as to see less of him than Al and Fred. Permanent handicap or disability touched family or at least acquaintance of so many that saw
The Best Years of Our Lives during 1946-47, none complacent after this conflict. Homer is damaged to where he wants to be left alone, us to wonder if marriage to Wilma will really help. Any happy ending for Homer will be qualified, for unlike Al or Fred, his handicap won’t be fixed. I say Al and Fred, but who can assure Fred’s nightmares would go away, or that Al’s problem drinking will abate? Ritual of Homer undressing for bed is done on quietly realistic and understated terms. When Dad helps, we see Homer close up, mechanics of harness and hooks withheld for greater impact when Wilma later assists, this the moment where the couple will bond, and Homer resolves finally to marry Wilma. Their going upstairs to Homer’s bedroom was among most intimate moments between two plain people that anyone watching might identify with. Here we see Homer for a first and only time without hands, no hardware to soften impact. A “shock” for audiences seeing such limitation on graphic terms, this was a talked-about, if not most talked-about, segment in The Best Years of Our Lives, fairly aching with emotion, a must-see moment in truest sense of the hackneyed term, and recognition of new maturity for films now that war was done. The Best Years of Our Lives signaled movies to grow up in accord with expectation even of youngest people who thanks to a last four years understood wrinkles in life Hollywood had by policy ducked, but now was obliged to confront more directly.

Fred’s marriage goes awry as expected, Marie offering no sympathy for his running out of combat cash and bent now to workaday grind. She also keeps their apartment like a rathole. Marie is every loused-up thing Peggy is not. We may safely assume she came of rough beginnings, but so undoubtedly did “Hortense,” married to Fred’s done-in and alcoholic father, but Hortense is kindly, her background Best Years proof that books need not be judged by covers. Fred will fall for Peggy as she has with him. Their attraction is as credible as it is intense, what splendid writing and direction achieve where each come together. Peggy admits to her parents that she wants Fred and will fight to have him. To her lights, Al and Milly don’t understand what it is to know such passion, cue for Best Years speech many would cleave to in moments where marital commitment was under siege. Milly relates times, many, where she no longer cared for her husband and believed it in her heart, that they had to fall in love all over ... and over ... again. Pins dropping, or popcorn kernels touching floors were heard during this I bet, audience couples pondering if they'd give their relationship one more try, to fall in love “all over again.” Were it possible for movies to have constructive outcome for viewership, here was it, but then The Best Years of Our Lives is filled with such nuggets as this.

Could anything like a boss or co-worker frighten men like Al or Fred after what war dealt them? Al approves a loan to farmer “Novak,” the man's character sufficient collateral. Sourpuss toady “Prew” (Charles Halton) reports this to Mr. Milton and Al is called on Cornbelt carpet. He’ll not come off his judgment however, sooner the job be chucked than bend to bank will on this occasion. Same with Fred at the drug store. Being close to life-death wall left Fred-Al aware that “danger” perceived in working life amounts to none by comparison. Did this make stands upon principle more common among their generation? Did fighting men come from respective brinks determined to live on their own terms? I grew up among authority figures who shrank not from pressures their offspring cowered before. So many seemingly bigger than life men were what peers and I imagined to be permanent fixtures, except they sadly were not. Once gone, there really was no one to assume their place. Fred punches out a big mouth at Midway Drugs and takes the fall for it, a complex exchange for us that maybe (or not) read simpler in 1946-47. Did then-viewers figure Mr. Mollett/Ray Teal for simply a bad guy who needed his block knocked off? Mollett says we were pushed into war “by a lot of Limeys and Reds,” a point Homer challenges by attacking the man with his hooks, a confrontation Fred breaks up when he slugs Mollett. But who’s really to blame for the melee?

Much of Best Years goes beyond black-and-white, though type casting of support players might suggest otherwise. Ray Teal was less established at this point for a louse, so did he really have severest reproof coming from Homer? Mollett/Teal is reading a front-page banner, “Senator Warns of New War.” How great a concern was this in 1946? We know new war didn’t come so soon as this, so are not concerned as surely some were in 1946. Mollett has a service pin, so why discount his opinion so readily? Maybe because he was Ray Teal, who like Charles Halton, Steve Cochran, and Howland Chamberlain, had faces we are predisposed to distrust, this the bane for actors whose presence implies ill conduct. Mollett does not strike back when Homer aggresses, shields himself rather than strikes. It is Homer who initiates the physical exchange by tearing Mollett’s pin from his lapel, sum of which incident loses Fred the Midway job for intervening. Does Homer have anger issues beyond physical disability we see? He broke a garage window earlier when children peeped in. Maybe Wilma is letting herself on for larger problems than she realizes. As with Al’s over-drinking, The Best Years of Our Lives hints happy endings we get may not stay altogether that way. The Mollett exchange is third-act crisis that will propel us toward surface resolution for all concerned, but to get there, each must surmount highest climbs, the stuff of best drama, if not of life itself.

Fred returns home jobless to find Marie entertaining “old friend” Cliff Scully (Steve Cochran), whom we glimpsed earlier during a club night out the Derrys do not enjoy with Peggy and her erstwhile escort. Cliff wears a service pin too, can’t understand Fred, “a guy like that with all this money lying around and he can’t get into it.” Cliff has been a star boarder with Marie, calls her “Sugar,” and figures to keep the lease on her bed. We concede at least one point to Cliff, who finds readjustment “easy, if you just take everything in your stride.” Cliff will thrive in postwar if he can stay out of trouble with police, him being Steve Cochran after all. Marie has developed a low opinion of Fred (“he’s not very bright”). A wall of mirrors she shares with Peggy during a powder room chat tips the resolution for both Fred and “Woody Merrill,” the boyfriend Peggy will soon discharge. Marie isn’t a bad consort for Cliff’s sort of guy. They are peas of a self-interested pod. Peggy is on the other hand ideal for Fred, but does she pamper him too much? We hope Fred will make a go of the junk business, for it does seem a last chance for him to “re-adjust.” His walk through a cemetery of bombers to swelling music is a last occasion for Fred living in troubled past, but will nightmares persist? Marie complained plenty about them, so yes, they wait upon Peggy to cope with, just as in offscreen movie life, Wanda Hendrix had finally to quit Audie Murphy, their marriage wrecked by his nocturnal torments. The Best Years of Our Lives even with a rapturous finish offers no pat answers, and that among many aspects is what makes and keeps it great.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Canon Fire #3

Among the One-Hundred: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) --- Part One

Pictures great enough can stand a frisk because no way does that make them less great. The Best Years of Our Lives might aptly have been called The Best Picture of Our Time, as that was how most regarded it. For our time of course, Best can at most be a Better among historic artifacts and maybe entertain in the bargain, so long as we are aware there was an event called World War Two and men who had issues returning from same. Who’s left to say how authentic Best Years was, yet for most years of mine, there were plenty, if fewer as I went, who lived drama of postwar for themselves, links to maintain Best Years relevancy. Now we’re upon 2023 and Best Years is better company to The Big Parade or even Gone With the Wind for experiences few if anyone living can first-run recall, at least recall in terms of having served their country as characters in the film do. We’re losing even those youngest when Best Years bowed, to be thirteen if you saw it new making you ninety this year. The Best Years of Our Lives must stand then on merit as drama of a period remote to virtually all, us late-born to elect how “real” it portrays turbulent time of gone lives. Being thought true was success Years achieved, gross second only to GWTW, and playing “free” streaming platforms everywhere it seems, lately at You Tube, also among Amazon souvenirs, them in receipt of the Goldwyn library midst swag of MGM buy-out by the media/discount/peep-into-lives by “Alexa,” monolith. Friend was awakened at 2 am by soft voice of “Echo Dot” (some being overheard now call her “Ziggy”) which said simply, “Someone is at your side door.” Him w/ Glock accompany found nothing amiss, but full awake and alert, slept no more that night (cause of issue: a spider had nested in his sensor device).

But let’s speak of The Best Years of Our Lives, compelling from start where “Fred Derry” (Dana Andrews) seeks a plane ticket to “Boone City,” fictitious berg if ever there was one. Plenty of Boones, one up foothills from me in fact, but no record of a Boone City I can Google-locate. Was there discussion of Best Years set in Cincinnati or maybe Detroit? That would have obliged location cost, at least for a second unit, plus loss of “Anywhere, USA” the object of drama. Fred wants a ticket to mythic spot, but no flight goes there, not noteworthy by itself, but then comes “George H. Gibbons,” played by known menacer of comedians and cowboys Ralph Sanford, forty-seven in ‘46 so having served or not is no issue. Mr. Gibbons has luggage sixteen pounds over limit, plus his golf clubs. “That’s alright,” he says to the clerk, “How much is it?” There is apprehension via Sanford/Gibbons that director plus writer (Wm. Wyler and Robert E. Sherwood) are setting up for class-war, but thankfully it’s a false alarm, as Mr. Gibbons is benign, and we won’t see him again. Were Wyler/Sherwood riffing on social issue seekers? Fred making way to a military cargo ride must walk under a plane as passengers board, his kind of hero deserving first to be accommodated, but won’t be here. Returning vets lost in a crowd is early among points Best Years strongly makes.

The Best Years of Our Lives
was both brave and caught a public’s readiness for wartime disability spoke on blunt terms. Everyone knew someone affected, few coming back entirely whole from oversea service. Fred Derry has his PTSD, an issue but not a consuming one, while Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) uses hooks rather than hands, real-life condition for Russell. This, or rather these, made Years a must-see, for no such conditions had been emphasized by movies before, curiosity drawing millions that might pass otherwise. No one had to feel guilty as with content to exploit misfortune, for Homer is one-of-us in all ways other, Russell the actor to be admired much as a fictional character he plays. His may be to modern taste the best performance among all too obvious actors beside him, this manifest in “reaction” contrived at seeing Homer use his hooks, awkward for respective takes differing, but thuds still, any response to some degree overdone. Tableau of Homer’s family plus sweetheart Cathy O’Donnell standing awkward as he waves goodbye to Fred and Al Stephenson (Fredric March) is mosaic of actor choices, none quite right, a group not used to play-pretend opposite a colleague equipped more potent than any prop or costume they might rely upon. We flinch when Homer drops a glass of lemonade on den carpet and a whole roomful does respective looks of despair. Russell as Homer not intentionally confers his disability upon body, whole bodies, of castmates, exception Fredric March who from start plays low-key opposite the hooks.

Nice moment aloft, the trio looking through picture window nose upon deep-focus landscape taking them home. Fred notes setting as former “office” during combat, time spent on his knees targeting sites below. Al asks if kneed position meant praying, to which Fred laughs “Yeah,” this leaving me to speculate on how many servicemen got (and kept) so-called “foxhole religion” during a long war where life was constantly under threat. Did a generation come home Christian-renewed, and did this strengthen US religious observance for at least a few decades to come? It’s a small moment to speak paragraphs if not pages, and sure it awoke feelings among 1946-47 viewership. We look at The Best Years of Our Lives as artifact … they decidedly did not. Here was where “More Than Just a Movie” applied, critics sensitive as a paying public to overarching mood. To rap Best Years would have seemed not just unpatriotic, but inhumane. Hesitation at re-entering homes is well-captured, the three as happy to visit “Butch’s Place,” local saloon where off-duty revels of recent memory can be recaptured. Here was comfort zone for returning vets, Butch’s a spot where comradery is renewed with men who understand convulsive ordeal four years at war was. Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) is Homer’s uncle, protective to a point of not letting his nephew have liquor, drawing beer for him instead. Did Butch forget Homer was anything but the boy who left home and high school to enter hell experienced since?

Al has brought souvenirs home to give his son, but “Rob,” having been taught at school about Japanese culture, takes differing view of war his father fought. There is something distasteful for Rob in how Dad came by his gifts. The high schooler hardly wants a sword or flag decorated by family signatures his father “found on a dead Jap soldier.” He’ll school Pop instead on “importance of family relationships” among the Japanese, to which Al almost throwaway replies, “Yeah, entirely different from us,” in its understated way a most devastating line in the film. Rob is shaming Al, if mildly, with his casual attitude toward the relics. He’d rather know if his father observed “effect of radioactivity of people who survived the blast,” leaving Dad again on a limb, “I saw nothing” the latter’s limp reply. Did this understated exchange sum up gap to evolve between fathers who fought and sons they’d come home to, issues engaged more explicitly by the sixties? Rob stayed home and so absorbed nuance re the enemy, but who taught him along these lines? 4-F teachers, slackers maybe, radicals like “Mr. Mollett” (Ray Teal) that Fred Derry will later encounter at the drug store soda fountain? Al and Rob’s reunion amounts to troubled portent, an only extended scene they’ll share, but pregnant with differences to air as postwar life settles into routine. “Rehabilitation” Fred refers to on the plane will not be so simple as he and other vets hope, for civilians, including family, expect soldier attitudes to conform with stateside notion as to why we fought and reward we may enjoy, or guilt we must bear, for doing so.

Al in drunken revelry and dancing with wife Milly lets cats out of his bag by jocular remark that “in a way, you remind me of my wife … the little wife back in the states.” Were Milly like millions of wives with returned husbands watching The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946-47, she might raise holy hell over remarks like these, drunk Al or not, kidding or not, for might this be truth slipped out because he’s drunk, thus tipping her off to what went on in Europe? As Myrna Loy was everyone’s concept of the perfect wife, Al can coast aboard party atmosphere at Butch’s, but what might Milly ponder when it’s 3:30 in the morning, her beside a sleeping-it-off husband? Women with mates long overseas had to face fact of most having strayed, 1946 early for movies to turn that card face up, but they’d get round to it, Homecoming in 1948 with Clark Gable relieving battle fatigue with Lana Turner as spouse Anne Baxter waits by the hearth, or Gregory Peck siring a child with an Italian mistress unbeknownst to Jennifer Jones back home (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, 1956). Men in stateside stress might give way the farm even in dreams. What if Fred asleep with wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) blurted assignation during leaves rather than planes burning and whether “Kudowski” bails out? We learn later how hep Marie is to likelihood Fred frisked while abroad, but by that time, what does she care? When Fred wakes up in Peggy’s bed (Teresa Wright), having been lent same by the Stephensons, he checks to see if money is still in his pocket, as servicemen knew danger of being rolled by short-term playmates. Fred like Al likely as not got around during their war, but how would wives get wise, short of thoughtless or unconscious confession on a spouse’s part?

Romance of PTSD is captured on intoxicating terms by Fred helpless with delirium and Peggy at his bedside giving tender assist. This all is intensely intimate, more so than anything movies had let happen between an unmarried couple in night apparel and close together on Code terms. Peggy soothes Fred, strokes his hair, mops his face and brow as he comes down from burning aircraft of troubled sleep. This is the moment where she falls in love with him. We’re told of pin-ups or ideals back home, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth summing those up to fantasy's point, but none had what Teresa Wright did as dream come truest for servicemen now that they were back and facing reality of loved ones glad for the reunion but never to interact on prewar terms again. Peggy understands and is sympathetic. Hers would have been a high standard for wives and sweethearts, anyone of families, to meet. It is here too that we realize Fred’s marriage is doomed, not just for Peggy being introduced, but because we’ve learned enough of Marie to suspect a lack of character and empathy. Why does she work and live alone? And why isn’t she at her apartment so very late at night? Knowing Virginia Mayo for glam so far her screen ID, we gird for a wife no good, or barely so. Marie is seen first rolling out of bed as Fred rings her buzzer, unaware it’s him (or Steve Cochran’s “Cliff” back early?). Mayo’s laziest-girl-in town exit from rumpled sheets is gesture she’ll duplicate for White Heat three years later, minus Warners dub-in snore to make coarse image complete. Marie is not a girl Fred will be happy with past a first couple weeks wearing out the mattress.

Part Two of The Best Years of Our Lives is HERE.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Film Noir #20 as GPS Noir Series Enters Second Year


Noir: Bullet to the Head, The Burglar, and Busting

BULLET TO THE HEAD (2012) --- The poster reads “Revenge Never Gets Old,” but do they really mean “Movies About Revenge Never Get Old”? --- because reprisal themes, unleashed as they are since abolishment of the Code, have indeed gotten old even as they serve audience need that never will change where getting even occupies much of people’s thought. Revenge is motive for much of what gets done, maybe not on terms expressed by Sylvester Stallone, but subtler and perhaps more deadly (how many jobs lost because someone by stealth did someone else in?). Stallone is an unrepentant hit man “set up” by unseen enemies who off his killing partner (they do a murder together within the film’s first minute). I will call Bullet to the Head noir because streets are mostly dark and Stallone dons modern dress rather than jungle fatigues or boxer trunks. He is so ripped as to not wear business attire comfortably. Him doing noir is like Gordon Scott or Steve Reeves having done noir, which they did not (Euro spies maybe, but dubbed to blur conviction). The title made me watch, plus fact Walter Hill directed. He is adept for story plus staging chases and fights, unfair to blame him if tale told here is confused by committee meddling. Hill likely was there mostly for money, action of blueprint sort having flooded markets by 2012 and boding to get worse with another decade, to which we have arrived, and yes, they did get worse. But how trying can 92 minutes be? Plenty, if you’re fed up with movies that would call themselves something like Bullet to the Head. Now me, with utter lack of critical standards, can watch these and enjoy, even pass off same as film noir, which, admit it, Bullet to the Head sort of is. Reminds me of zombie and Hostel and torture flix that some refuse to dignify as part of a horror genre, but sadly of course they are, and traditionalists can like it or find another sandbox. Bullet to the Head is everywhere that streaming happens. Watch it for three dollars and say penance after.

THE BURGLAR (1957) --- Very much to me like a European art noir … there were those in play by 1957 if fewer seen on US shore, so The Burglar would do for off beaten track (and by ’57, noir tracks were plenty beat). Helps when arty subjects have solid story spines to prop them through a feature’s length, as here David Goodis doing both source novel and screenplay. He was another who was good and sadly unrecognized for being good, per many who supplied kindling for noir. I’m shocked by how little money these talents got for even most memorable work, theirs hands-down most popular of American literature, thanks to twenty-five cent paperbacks in which to ply vigorous trade. Must be fun collecting these, as I’m told they sizzle possibly more than in fresh print. Looks like The Burglar was a first feature Paul Wendkos directed. After that, it was B’s, then a generation helming television. He tries and succeeds at making The Burglar something different. Much was shot outdoors, and at night, in not-overly-familiar locations like Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Narrative centered around people raised from childhood to commit crime is neat twist against type, Goodis giving it authenticity added to by Dan Duryea, maybe his high point, certainly in a lead, plus Jayne Mansfield for what amounts to a character part (and effective) before plastic stardom cast her out of chance like this again. Columbia released The Burglar after it was produced independently. They realized $305K for their pains. You wonder what expectation was had. Pictures like this even when they were good, which this certainly was, got nary a fair shake at theatres or drive-ins that used them pure-for-filler, if at all. Noir excavation has but recent given back The Burglar to whoever it will stimulate, more I'm guessing than would be captivated by mainstream, even major hit films, that came out also in 1957.

BUSTING (1974) --- Dissenter cop Elliot Gould wears wool caps (even to bed) and pops bubble gum as he and similarly maverick Robert Blake do 70’s vice squad proud, Busting another of profane looks at police work as practiced by those who fight crime no matter futility for doing so. It was by 1974 understood that municipalities were bought from top down by an underworld operating above ground and wide open. Rules are meant to be bent … were real police inspired by Gould/Blake, Freebie and the Bean, or Starsky/Hutch on TV? Busting has a shootout carried into a crowded market, clerks mowed down and the rest cringing in terror. Urban conditions were thought so far gone that we of rural placement figured a Busting for total verisimilitude, any trip to Gotham risk to life best not taken unless going there really was essential, like for heart transplant or buying a lab-snuck print of Goldfinger. Yes, this was New York, but is it still? Strip clubs, drug dens, all where life might end sudden just for blundering into line of fire. Fact films were shot on sites made metro look the more ferocious, but what fun these were, and consider historical documents they’ve become, thumbing broke nose at current Code restrictions. Busting is noir for hopelessness of fixing this town and all of ones like it. Seventies America, dudes! I revere pictures like Busting and find most of them end too soon. For me, they loop splendid with what we call Classic Era Noir, being sole way this style could go if it was to survive at all, down and outness told by changed times. Busting has signature muddy look precious to the seventies. Was life so like this? Don’t recall, though maybe I wore rose-color specs as others saw things clear. R-ratings add ginger to Busting and like, all too dirty to ever be dull. And here’s the thing … most are better even than last times I saw them, which is why I’m for hanging noir necktie and laurels in general on the lot. Raucous comedy and irreverence start-to-end see moderns deny these for noir, but should noir just be guys with fedoras and double-crosser dames, these belonging to seventies truth like horse-collars or doilies? Call Busting noir then and let’s open entry for more to deserve placement. Imagine how Noir Cities could swell population with such garnish, and note I didn't say garbage, which some would call Busting --- they just don't know art. I’ll take Busting and ilk all day and thank Kino for taking chain off it for Blu-Ray.

This finishes the B's for Noir, and here are Greenbriar links to earlier noir or features with noir elements: Bigger Than Life, Blues in the Night, Body and Soul, Border Incident, The Boston Strangler, and The Breaking Point.

Monday, February 06, 2023

Overnight Star In the Making?


1956 Pretty Babies Rock to Rock, Pretty Baby

Night of November 7, 1956: D.J. favorite Johnny Grant asks outgoing teens, and moms of teens, “What did you think of Johnny Saxon?” Universal-International was inspired by response to put together a reel’s worth of viewer comments for exchange use in all states, the short tabbed for trade screenings with Rock, Pretty Baby. Could this be an R&R sleeper to leave others in boxoffice shade? We know Rock, Pretty Baby, if at all, from sharp images (check eBay) and cloudy transmission via You Tube. Oh for a Kino release, but has Universal even done a High-Def transfer? It’s not as though Rock, Pretty Baby had importance,  because, no, John Saxon was not another James Dean, despite ad assurance he was, and music such as there was (songs, but ordinary ones), plus teen angst re parents and how latter fail too often to understand, or more specifically, fail to come through with $300 to finance a boss guitar. Shades of Rebel Without a Cause were here, Sal Mineo first-billed, though his part was junior to Saxon’s, latter the bigger (and contract-bound) push by U-I. Then there was Edward C. Platt as obtuse dad, him formerly the police dick that taught Dean a thing or two in Rebel. Veterans were on hand, young and old, ingenue lead Luana Patten around since service for Disney in the mid-forties and ongoing from there, George Winslow erstwhile “Foghorn” for kid parts at Fox. Shelley Fabares was coming up as adolescent support, later to co-play with Elvis and countless elsewhere teen work. Rock, Pretty Baby spots even Fay Wray as muddled mom, and we wonder if any of youth cast caught her King Kong in 1956 reissue or one of pioneer broadcasts on RKO General stations that took place while Rock, Pretty Baby was in production.

Like any distributor, Universal wanted a youth picture that would break into a million-dollar rentals class. That needed crossover into Rebel and Blackboard Jungle territory, both immense grossers and taken with issues deeper than what Rock, Pretty Baby explored. U-I’s “newsreel” finds grown-ups endorsing the film in accompany of offspring, which you could ask why unless to monitor or inspect the show for cleanliness, which Rock, Pretty Baby very much was what with Saxon and friends well-behaved with safe “ballads” woven into their band repertoire. This was not Rebel/Blackboard intensity, but Andy Hardy updated with no conflict or misunderstanding that could not be ironed out within ninety minutes. Universal like others as hidebound thought what was needed was conciliatory entertainment a whole family could see and not quarrel over. Teens however could smell such ruse and leave it alone, “Johnny Saxon” or not. What made U-I imagine he could be another James Dean? The original had been gone less than fourteen months and no duplicate had yet been found for him. Elvis came closest and was hot upon streets with his first, Love Me Tender, playing to kid mobs the very night, plus surrounding ones, around Baby’s Encino preview. Universal had plenty reason to think Saxon would click on Dean terms, for there had lately been The Unguarded Moment, where JS was a troubled teen after JD fashion, the picture with its rape theme, a schoolteacher played by Esther Williams, hopefully a magnet for adult patronage plus youth allured. Rock, Pretty Baby was bland follow-up beside this, though Saxon would go an approximate Dean direction, if watered down and aimed more at romantic support in adult-driven product. He’d even work for director Vincente Minnelli at MGM, second tier pairing with Sandra Dee while Rex Harrison and Kay Kendell took leads. Would James Dean or handlers have stood for this?

Tip-off to Universal’s aim was clean teens exiting Encino auditorium into Johnny Grant’s lobby embrace. No surly or slouchers in this crowd, none with “attitude,” which we may assume were culled by U-I during edit process, though for crowd shots shown, maybe the whole lot was clean-cut and nicely behaved. Even little brothers/sisters came along, much like “Foghorn” and Shelley Fabares’ “Twinky” in the film. Universal staff plus creatives had been taught to a man/woman that it was big tent industry sought to fill. Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle defied those rules and it paid, but to alienate segments of your audience further? That was chancing things too much, undermining whole segments' comfort with moviegoing. To aim entertainment at teens to exclusion of parents and younger siblings was planting toadstools at entrance doors. Maintaining welcome mats for all forced blandness upon product like Rock, Pretty Baby, plus there still being a Production Code and Legion of Decency to cope with. These sorts of compromise were what kept ambitions low for youth-aimed output, at least output that would appeal to youth and mollify parents. Such cheapies all, whether rock/roll, sci-fi, juve delinquent, kept horns pulled and gored nobody with content beyond what posters and trailers showed. Kids had memorized cheat sheets and knew limit of thrills they’d get. In fact, most were by now used to laughing at films so resolutely not delivering what was promised by promos. An age of irony, incubating at least since the war, would burgeon upon alter of product presuming to “speak” to youth.

U-I was determined that Rock, Pretty Baby be the exception, Encino glimpse whispering it would be. 16mm they shot using the Johnny Grant interviews seems sincere in the capture of crowd satisfaction. Rock-roll was obviously a hit on radio and records, but a ghetto for movies except what Elvis had geared up and a pair of Pat Boones soon to unveil for Fox. Boone however was for ballads and good behavior parents not only endorsed but went with their children to see. Rock, Pretty Baby was for tickling that vibe. Season rivals included down-dirty Rock! Rock! Rock! from independent DCA, but well exploited, plus another from Sam Katzman, Don’t Knock the Rock, a show world recalling how he cracked a million in rentals with Rock Around the Clock, a venture that cost him and Columbia mere dimes. Sort of like 3-D in that big studios wanted their offerings to be “exceptions” to a rule of cheap-and-grab, Universal putting plush (for them) to Rock, Pretty Baby and sending cast members for nationwide touring in December, Sal Mineo and John Saxon to Detroit for the US premiere, then Mineo to the Butterfield circuit in Michigan, Saxon visiting Omaha, Des Moines, then Charlotte and New Orleans. Effort yielded $1.430 million in domestic rentals (Variety estimate), good for a sequel, Summer Love, with most of cast members reunited. This was money aspiring to Elvis/Pat Boone, if a million or so below their level, yet John Saxon was a find, and belonged to Universal. Latter showed how to play R&R to tune a wider audience would embrace, and if this was hollow recital of Big Beat, then let it be so, long as caution-first Mom and Dad plus clean teens supported effort past a million mark.

Griff sends along Gotham saturation ad for combo engagement of Summer Love with The Big Beat:
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