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Monday, June 12, 2023

Something Technicolorful from Warner Archive

King Solomon's Mines Never Looked So Spectacular

King Solomon’s Mines
showed up this week from Warner Archive, a Blu-Ray I call an event. There have been a number of those … Ivanhoe, The Three Musketeers, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Adventures of Don Juan, mission accomplished for seeing the lot born again as when Technicolor was poured first from respective buckets. Thing with Archive releases is coming in with high expectation and having them always surpassed. I knew King Solomon’s Mines would be a reclaimed glory, but to such extent? --- well let’s just say life can still delight as in youth where films embed among happiest memories. Safe to say I felt among Liberty crowd that saw King Solomon’s Mines open on Christmas Day 1950, moment captured by artist B. Davis years later. One would like to have been there, but here truly is a next best thing, the Blu-Ray akin to emeralds Richard Carlson dips hand in at third act payoff. Solomon’s sidelight: Couple of us years ago explored a relic shop in High Point, ancient environ with a ceiling thirty feet, or seeming so. Upon high wall hung three from MGM's set of eight 20X60 door panels issued to first runs of King Solomon’s Mines. 1950 was where the Lion kicked promotion into highest gear, a policy to last six or so years until television bathed the whole in red ink from which once-mighty Metro would not resurface, golden days done and out. Tri-panels were assembled once down from musty placement and properly framed to form a mural good as art at the Metropolitan, or seeming so for me.

Could any but MGM have made King Solomon’s Mines? They were still the spectacle company when occasion called for it. Paramount had DeMille but his was a one-man unit that none other of Para staff approached. Warner cinched belts and would spend no more at high levels. Universal, RKO, Columbia … never mind. It was Metro or nobody for Solomon sort of splurge. They had gone jungly on large scale before, Trader Horn recalled by many if lately seen by none, being miracle of not only Africa exploration but sound technique still aborning. King Solomon’s Mines was everything anybody could hope for in 1950, a declaration of what movies could now render. “Hardship” shows are a treat not only for what characters endure, but trial upon filmmakers gone way off-grid. Being a movie star sounds like fun until they hand you a job like this. Seven months on the Dark Continent was price of completion, that plus $2.2 million records say was Solomon’s negative cost. (Co) director Andrew Marton recalled $1.8 million, and we guess he was right for studio overhead tacked on all releases, Metro’s and elsewhere. Want background of King Solomon’s Mines in fascinating detail? Get a copy of Scarecrow’s Andrew Marton: A Directors Guild of America Oral History, published in 1991 and tough as a nut to find since. Last one I saw at eBay went for $85. Marton did lots besides King Solomon’s Mines, but it was by far his most famous, so naturally he spills plenty to interviewer Jeanne D’Antonio. This is one of the great behind-camera chronicles of a classic film.

MGM crew and cast flew over to do King Solomon’s Mines. Compare this with odyssey that was Trader Horn, all shipboard and taking forever to cross. Getting there was achievement enough in 1929. Like Admiral Byrd, these were brave souls to so venture. Step off airplanes and then to work in 1950 was mere modern efficiency any might receive upon price of a ticket, going to Africa or anywhere took for granted in new era of world access. Andrew Marton's task was similar if less severe than for W.S. Van Dyke and Trader company, but add convenience of twenty years progress, like for instance Coca-Cola on ice always at hand. Two directors were assigned, Marton and Compton Bennett, separate units often working hundreds of miles apart. Rivalry was inevitable, one waiting, perhaps hoping, the other would falter, a single credit the unspoken goal. Marton said in look-back that Bennett drank, enough in excess to bungle some of work. Africa ended up not being big enough for both of them, so Marton “took over” and came home with most of gravy, his a “rescue” of King Solomon’s Mines amounting to “sixty-one percent of the film” he directed, footage by his reckoning most effective of all. I don’t doubt Andrew Marton was savior of King Solomon’s Mines, him known salvage man for projects both past and to come, but like with many an argument, it’s the guy living longest who wins, Compton Bennett not in this instance that guy, having died in 1974. To my knowledge, he was never interviewed in detail regarding King Solomon’s Mines.

Just as much of Trader Horn had to be sweetened, so too did King Solomon’s Mines. What was shot in Africa was by no means the finish of it. Plenty got done in Hollywood and nearby environs. Nighttime camp scenes neatly composed and perfectly lit are a tipoff, as would be case with three years later Mogambo. A desert trek was shot back home in Death Valley over ground Von Stroheim used for 1924's Greed, this amounting to trip out of Hollywood but not so long a one. Action amidst dunes was captured also “next to the El Segundo sewage disposal plant,” a detail MGM surely left out of publicity. Stewart Granger got sick during this and so was extensively doubled, as was also case in Africa. We noted less of that in old transfers of King Solomon’s Mines, but now, with visuals plainer, it’s detectable. Andrew Marton was for emphasizing the love story between Granger and Deborah Kerr, a sensible and showman-like preference. Must say I also focused on that, as did audiences in 1950 and into 1951. Source novel by H. Rider Haggard, published 1880, was “a very popular British book which every child reads,” Marton’s memory as of the 1980’s, but he was born in 1904, and we could wonder who among youngsters, UK or US-based, had read King Solomon’s Mines as of 1950, let alone today when H. Rider Haggard is less than obscure. Marton credited screen scribe Helen Deutsch with commercial instinct to make a venerable tale live again, romance as nearly always the essential element. King Solomon’s Mines is to be admired the more for jigsaw it was, adroit fakery neatly combined with real things of Africa, us then or now not suspecting switches throughout (at least I didn’t).

King Solomon’s Mines
has a stampede still heart-stopping, pillaged afterward whenever MGM needed grabber for cheap jungle ventures, stock footage the curse upon backlot Africa where explorers were Frankie Avalon rather than Stewart Granger. King Solomon’s Mines had devices to spice even a stampede shot where and as it happened. Marton wanted authenticity of actors interacting with animals, got two hundred zebras which actually were painted jackasses leaping over the cast in a best remembered shot. I said painted jackasses, all of which performed within confine of Metro’s backlot. Rather than be disillusioned, let’s by all means applaud ingenuity of such trick stuff. Downing an elephant for Solomon’s first scene was all too real, not planned as Marton had no desire to kill the noble beasts, but one of them charged and had to be shot for safety of cast and crew. What happened in aftermath, pachyderm companions hoisting up the dead and carrying same off, was unplanned and made large impression on audiences. Larger still was the boxoffice, King Solomon’s Mines clocking five million in domestic rentals and $6.9 million foreign, all toward final profit of $4.8 million, a fantastic sum bettering everything since Mrs. Miniver. The record would be surpassed a following year by Quo Vadis. Success of King Solomon’s Mines brought Trader Horn out of tombs for a 1953 revival, but as told previous, Trader was an encore too old, too late, for current crowds to embrace. Better liked were antique Tarzans back to thrill anew, plus Mogambo rolling up grosses impressive for themselves, except this time negative costs crept higher and so left less gain at final accounting.

There was frisson for me when Solomon’s treasure revealed itself, as in speak to collector past when we sought the lost, reveled in what was “found” after years sitting pristine in storage none but single eccentric owners knew about. I’ve supped on a book of late called The Library: A Fragile History, where the authors talk among other things about “sanctuaries” kept centuries ago by European monasteries, these to preserve ancient manuscripts otherwise lost as civilizations that generated them. Such monastic complexes were “like fortresses,” which they had to be to keep interlopers out. Collectors breached such walls as have counterparts since. It is mindset of some to hunt what is rarest, most desirable. To know where treasure is and to flush it out is a thrill but few know. A seeker named Ralph Heyward Isham followed his instincts to the greatest literary find of the twentieth century, private papers of James Boswell, him the biographer of Samuel Johnson which is still read and revered today. This was two-hundred-year-old stuff, strewn about barns, cabinets, whatever space baronial estates had to fill. Richness doesn’t jump out of drawers to say hello. Solomon strivers find that out at peril to lives, modern collectors often feeling they’ve gone to as perilous places.

To deal with owners, occasionally ones who hardly know what they own, is tightrope enthusiasts walk. Sellers quickly guess a value, often to extent of overvaluing what they have, whenever someone knocks at the door wanting it. Few owners are so oblivious to worth as native tribes in King Solomon’s Mines. Hordes are guarded well and must be rooted out like emeralds deep in Solomon cave. Often there was myth as to what holders had. You’d hear of a glorious possession, then discover there was no such thing. Search on the other hand could reveal wealth beyond what you came for, items not known to be there … but there they were. Case in memorable point: The Don Juan trip, account Greenbriar-tendered in 2006. We were there for an IB Technicolor print of The Adventures of Don Juan but found unexpectedly a cache of 16mm Warner cartoons untouched since minting years before, still on cores with lab stickers, which meant they were never projected before, in our hands briefly but not available to buy. Same with Enemy from Space (Quatermass II), a feature then thought virtually lost, at least eluding collectors I knew. Again no dice, negotiation for Don Juan only, nothing more to be had. How often do seekers enter whole rooms of bounty? King Solomon’s Mines evokes several such experiences, more that were barely misses, as in “Oh yes, some man came just last week and carted off the whole lot in his pickup.” Appropriate that Technicolor should be a link between celluloid then and Blu-Ray now, except film frankly pales beside what digital delivers, heresy my saying so perhaps, but what eyes reveal must be truth at least for me when watching what Warners has wrought.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Your heresy about Blu-ray is not heresy. It is the wonderful truth. The other night watching THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH I felt the beauty of the film powerfully. Then when we had what a good sound system brings to the table, well, it is just plain remarkable. Had the same feeling last night watching THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN extras on the Warner Edition. I have the Brit edition as well. Now you have me dying to see KING SOLOMON'S MINES. Mostly because of your story of the unplanned action of the elephants. Blu-rays don't shrink, warp, get emulsion scratches and, best of all, they are legal. Tough about those cartoons.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

I well recall my parents taking me to a drive-in theatre to see a revival of King Solomon's Mines during the '50s. The moment that comes back to me more vividly than anything in the film itself, however, was when a clown with an all white face suddenly stuck his head into the darkness of our car. (Please don't ask me why a clown would be at a drive-in for a jungle adventure).

In any event I let out a scream, my head bouncing off the roof of the car and the clown quickly withdrew his head from the window, cracking it on the way. He let a few un-Bozo-like comments fly in my direction at the time. I guess my lifelong dislike of clowns began that evening.

Aside from that, John, it's ironic that you made reference to Adventures of Don Juan in your homage to King Solomon since that lavish production had just failed to be the big box office hit that Errol Flynn's career needed at the time. Flynn then made the mistake (in retrospect) of turning down the role of Allan Quartermain in King Solomon's Mines. He apparently didn't want to travel to Africa for the on location shooting, much preferring the more comfortable confines to be found in India where he would travel instead for another MGM adventure film, Kim.

Too bad, as Solomon would have been the hit that Flynn needed and might have brought some juice back to his career. All of which worked out to Stewart Granger's good fortune, of course. Granger later wrote that after after Solomon had been box office gold for him he thanked Flynn for turning down the role to which Errol replied "Don't remind me."

11:42 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

By the way, that elephant going down near the beginning of Solomon's always made me cringe at it looks all too real. Sadly your comments confirm that it was.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Watched the Blu-Ray last night. BEAUTIFUL. Compared it to the WB DVD. Night and day.

7:16 AM  

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