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Monday, October 30, 2023

Watch List for 10/30/2023


Watched: It Started in Naples, Screwball Squirrel, and The Reptile

IT STARTED IN NAPLES (1960) --- Clark Gable’s next to last. He crossed the Atlantic and began eating pasta as if it was just invented. Naples and the Island of Capri had been photographed before, used even as feature location, but never like this. No scene goes long without view of vistas, a natural of course for VistaVision. You’d think this was first occasion for VV, so emphasized was scenery (not since initial travelogues showing off the process had Paramount been so invested in sights for their own sake). Hotel conversations move out onto balconies to keep eyes on prize that is natural backdrop. This one comes close to making us hop a plane and see for ourselves, as how much could raw landscape change over sixty plus years? To pasta reference that led, here was indeed Gable’s downfall, for like Columbus in reverse, he discovered what bounty the old world served and couldn’t push heaping plates away. Payoff was getting home for look at completed It Started in Naples and realizing how tubby those treats made him. “Why didn’t you people tell me how fat I’d gotten?” he railed, but who would have interrupted their own bountiful meals for that? CG is the ugly, let’s say impatient, American abroad, basis of jokes at least for a first half before he ties with Sophia Loren, who seems not quite the King’s type, though she can wear heels beside him, not a privilege granted where Loren co-starred with Alan Ladd in Boy On a Dolphin. Story and dialogue pokes fun at foreigns in ways expected then --- we realize the war was fifteen years past and a new generation of provincials had come up since. Gable refers to having been there during conflicts but still watches his wallet and women of the street who might take advantage. He’s an old rooster set in ways, and if that is how you prefer him, OK, which a public must have, else there would have been no Teacher’s Pet and But Not for Me preceding this.

SCREWBALL SQUIRREL (1944) --- Good thing there is spell check, as I could not in a lifetime write "Squirrel" correctly. An HD bonus with The Thin Man Goes Home on Blu-Ray, I watched and was again impressed by Tex Avery’s jape at, in particular, Disney cuteness, plus barbs toward less inspired Metro easels. Did these folk realize Avery was ridiculing them, or was Screwball Squirrel just a good-natured rib? If so, it was with a stiletto, for how could cuddly bunnies survive assault like this? Title squirrel is abrasive beyond funny. We wish at moments for the hapless dog to capture and fry him. Daffy and Bugs had no meaningful competition here, yet SS was a bold invention, reprised a couple more times, but not to survive. Avery needed, very much wanted, a character or characters to protect turf at MGM, Hanna-Barbera walking proudly past him to collect what I assume were higher pay packets. And yet Tex's would be a better legacy, one imitated to present day, his viewpoint catnip for a counterculture. Did colleges host Tex Avery festivals in the sixties or seventies? He thought little enough of past work, figured himself played out in a culture he helped define, along with Clampett, Jones, some of others. To think Avery had to scramble just to do bug spray commercials, yet those were art as well, if in thirty second bites. Too bad we lost cartoons as sustainable product, money available during a Classic Era to make more as a mass audience wanted and waited for them. Such was moment in history gone for good. Even animated features seem imperiled. Has Pixar played out? Thanks to Warners for releasing the Averys on Blu-Ray. Seems most are out by now --- any stragglers left from the MGM group?

Here is a Drawing I Made of The Reptile After Seeing It at the Liberty in 1967

THE REPTILE (1967) --- Among “Cornwall” cycle of Hammer films, done economically and in pairs to save precious funds, the company as always on knife-edge of solvency. The Reptile was shot in 1965, played to US audiences over a year later, the Liberty getting it more like 1967 and a few weeks after intended co-feature Rasputin, The Mad Monk. Hammer differed from mainstream features of the time. Even imitators like Amicus out of England could not truly duplicate their singular brand. I saw recent where Merchant/Ivory used Hammer as visual model for their lush literary adaptations. Smart Boys. Cuts were made to Hammer output we did not know about at the time, even as monster magazines sort of hinted at highlights seen only in Japan or far-flung elsewhere. The Reptile is of a snake woman and her victims buried, then exhumed, repeatedly so, for no discernable reason other than to present us with varying views of decay. There was intelligence in these yarns almost despite themselves. I felt flattered that Hammer never played down to me. Behind-scene stills show sets little bigger than closets. What this company did with not a lot was remarkable. Fans turned scholar have made careers, written books by score, about this little UK engine that could, and did. The Reptile like others of Hammer was more mystery than monsters, a riddle to be unraveled and let poster-featured fiends stay in background until reveal is appropriate and necessary. In other words, Hammer practiced more restraint than they were given credit for, especially by compare with what would come soon after (Night of the Living Dead ... yecch). People of Hammer, both acting and producing/directing/doing design or make-up, were like family gathered for gardening or picnic, all upon shared mission to scare, but keeping us comfy during the doing. I like Hammer the more for each of endless repeats. Nostalgia factors in, plus fact they're plain well-made and eternally satisfying.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Are Howling Successes Spent?


Werewolf Jack Nicholson Tries Venison for Lunch

Greenbriar's Last Word on Werewolves

WOLF (1994) --- Wolf refreshes for teaching joys of lycanthropy. Having watched, I would not mind becoming a werewolf myself, minus discomfort of initial bite, small price to pay for power unleashed after. Jack Nicholson really sells the benefits here, Wolf fast becoming for me a favorite performance of his. Imagine if Nicholson had played his Wolf character for AIP thirty years earlier. It might have happened. Let Luana Anders have the Michelle Pfieffer part, Vincent Price or even Rathbone subbing for Christopher Plummer. I can dream, can’t I? But no complaint, Wolf plenty fine as it is. Modern horror for me, and for a long time, has been if anything too horrific. I shy from modern gross-out fx applied to wolf men. What was accomplished by discreet dissolve became onscreen epileptic seizures. Spare me fingers and toes twisting and curling. Nicholson is actor enough not to need pyro-tricks when facial expression w/light hair growth and discreetly grown teeth will do. Too often the monster id takes over the identity not of just characters, but men impersonating them, so where is value for paying to watch your selected star? Make-up upon Nicholson is minimal then, as was more than satisfactory case with Henry Hull, who as I recall told Jack Pierce to go easy applying yak. Jack Nicolson was born to play a werewolf for being wolfish himself. Unlike with Batman, he underplays and is entirely credible as someone damned by fate (bitten in the opening scene). I expect Nicholson respects lycanthropy lore, whereas the Joker was for him … a joke. Besides which Wolf has assets way past mere recital of a monster on the loose and business of containing him. Director Mike Nichols and writers wanted to take their werewolf in an entirely new and adventurous direction.

Monster of the Boardroom Christopher Plummer Wields His Own Silver Bullet

Back to rash remark that being a werewolf might be fun, there if nothing else fruit of watching and being lulled by a “smart” monster movie where controlling hands want us to consider positive aspects of transacting one's immortal soul with demons. “Will Randall” (Nicholson) is a retiring, if defeated, book editor with ability but not resolve to rise within corridors of power that is high-powered Manhattan publishing overseen by chilly tycoon Christopher Plummer. Once bitten however, Will/Jack transforms not just into a wolf, but something more attractive to those among us who’d assert themselves more if only courage were there to be assertive, in short Will as everyman he/she would dream to be if only he/she had the nerve to not let others walk on him/her. Fun mid-sections see/hear/taste for Will whose heightened senses yield animal benefits … who knew wild beasts had it so good? Pretty soon Will is king of savage land that is corporate culture, joy in watching him claw ways up, a worm-turn scenario enjoyed in wish fulfillment terms film satisfies best. I’m almost sorry when necessary monster stuff takes lead for a second half and overpowers a final third that less inventive chillers resort to per lycanthrope lore. Still we get welcome twist where Will and so-far human love interest Pfeiffer join their devil’s brood for happy hunting forever after. One could wish such outcome for Larry Talbot and Gwen Conliffe, but 40’s rules being inviolate, we'd not expect dream come true of becoming fully a wolf to enjoy total freedom’s bliss. Could this have been seen as viable alternative to stress of modern life by the nineties? And how about now, especially now? I bet we all know plenty who would swap humanity for stops off that is wolf life, again minus essential bite to get us there.

Universal Revives Its Classic Plexiglass Logo to Open The Wolfman's Unrated Version

THE WOLFMAN (2010) --- The Wolfman was among Universal efforts to revitalize “intellectual properties” from the thirties and forties, that is, monsters we’re presumed to have known and loved. The venture cost $150 million to produce, brought back worldwide $130 million, a lot of loss and faint incentive to persist with wolfmen. Greenbriar dealt previous with perceived duds from Universal’s Monster Army that fought and were vanquished by a market not disposed to embrace them. Were werewolves, vampires, and Frankensteins voted quaint and thus chucked by horror fans who outgrew them? The Wolfman was reviewed cruelly and scored but 34% on “Rotten Tomatoes.” Yes, there are those who abide by thumb up or down by this entity, also one called “Metacritic” which gave The Wolfman 43%. I’ve wondered if period setting was the silver bullet. Technical skills and art direction cannot be faulted, The Wolfman astonishing just for how it looks. Benicio Del Toro is outstanding as Lawrence Talbot, reminding me at times of a beardless Paul Muni. Del Toro said in interviews that he was raised on Universal horrors and kept 8mm Castle films to watch on his bedroom wall. The Wolfman, determined to be an “action thriller,” oversells gore as did Hammer horrors during the early seventies when their output coarsened. There is a mystery werewolf who causes worst of trouble, me not pleased by “surprise” unmasking of him. The Wolfman is best when quietest, or maybe I prefer peace amidst the din. As more studio uppers interfere, the louder is volume it seems, shrillest notes perceived the safest by skittish and job-scared execs. CGI has been more and more a culprit since The Wolfman was new, and fresher, in 2010. As we hear increasing call for return to “practical effects,” could it be souped-up fx have had their day, or is that mere wishful thinking?

Exclusive to the Unrated Version: Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot Performs Hamlet

I read on chaotic filming of much that is modern and note directors fired, footage scrapped, costs overrunning. Wolfman director Joe Johnston has done four features since 2010, one of them for TV. Is that a good average for helmsmen nowadays? I’m not sure how directors of overblown monster movies and superhero stuff can leave much personal signature on work, but maybe none of them expect to. The money is at least good, I hope. The Wolfman has worthwhile things about it. Two versions are extant and streaming, the general release at 102 minutes, and an “Unrated” 119 minutes. I watched the latter for figuring it was gorier, so where does that leave my previous and prissy complaint about current horror films being too gory? Fact is, the long cut has highlights regrettably dropped for theatres, like Talbot shown at his London occupation as star Shakespearean actor, a nice and novel touch. Seems every contemporary title I summon at Amazon has alternative iterations, two ways at least to see a feature whether popular in its day or not. Some might say a shorter 102 minutes is still too long to tell a Wolfman story, especially as the 1941 original got it done within a fleet 70 minutes. Latter artists that venerate classics sometimes pay too much homage, pumping tires to near popping point. Look at what has been remade --- King Kong, any or all Draculas, athletic Mummies, the elephantine lot. What if a 70-minute feature were tendered today --- would cinemas and viewership turn such an offering down flat?

Monday, October 16, 2023

All of a Sudden Moved By One I've Seen So Often ...


Werewolf of London Attacks on Lots of Levels

Werewolves are largely class-conscious, tending to come of landed gentry, this to enhance tragedy as visited upon a lycanthrope. Dr. Wilfred Glendon is an aristocrat who plays at botany as he can well afford to, a hobbyist whose manor is given over to exotic gardening and a laboratory where he will cultivate the “Mariphasa,” a flower which apart from blooming by moonlight, has little practical application other than to serve as temporary antidote to werewolfery, a benefit Dr. Glendon was unaware of over six month effort he made to locate the obscure plant. Dr. Glendon’s research does not appear to have been peer-reviewed, his inquiries made solo with little interest to share findings with an outside scientific community. He is rich enough not to care if the Mariphasa ever yields a penny or pound, a “Botanical Society” he chairs gathered at his home to admire plant oddities, members less intrigued by Glendon’s research than furtherance of their own social ambitions, several in fact relatives of his.

Dr. Glendon has a looker of a wife he ignores. She is preyed upon less by him in werewolf guise than by former beau “Captain Paul Ames,” (Lester Matthews) also born to status, exploring about in his plane and operating a flight school. Ames is a deeply unsympathetic character trying to snake another man’s wife by telling her how “horribly, miserably unhappy” she really is and pretending to care while wanting to score her because after all she is Valerie Hobson (scroll down), and he knows like everyone that she is neglected. “Won’t you tell an old pal how to help?” he asks, a deft opener line familiar to would-be seducers of married women, Mrs. Glendon giving him the go signal by replying “There’s been no fight in me since the night we broke things off.” These two have got coming whatever lupine assault they are liable to get. Dr. Glendon despite his distractions and humorless nature does not deserve intrusion upon sanctity of his home, what with realizing he is down with something dreaded and cannot seek or expect help. Are we drawn to monsters for how they suffer? Werewolves never arrive at their condition through poor judgment or recklessness. Fate finds them bitten and infected and that is that. Our sympathies are with lycanthropes and depending on one’s mood when watching, project ourselves upon their misery and isolation.

To Glendon impasse comes Dr. Yogami, “student and nurturist of plants,” formerly instructor at a “Carpathian University,” and played masterfully by Warner Oland. Dr. Yogami was the werewolf who infected Dr. Glendon and acknowledges as much. The pair are “lost souls” and nothing can relieve them but the prickly stem of the Mariphasa, which Glendon has and Yogami wants. Oland at one point steps forward to extreme closeup wherein he confides urgency of the crisis he shares with Glendon, gently laying hand upon the other man’s sleeve to indicate where he, in werewolf guise, inflicted the wound. Yogami is an intense melancholic, Oland’s performance beyond mere inhabit of the character. There was much of Yogami in Oland based on what I’ve read of this troubled man who died two years later after much of a lifetime tormented by alcohol and moods that saw him often disappear for reasons unaccounted. Warner Oland for me confers deep sadness upon all his parts save Charlie Chan.

Offscreen travail could and often did enrich what a player brought to parts, benefit that genius derives in compensation perhaps for being a bit mad. English ultra-talent Stephen Fry was once asked, if allowed to push a button that would exorcise demon that was his bipolar condition, would he push it? Fry said no. He recognized a deepest if frightful source of his extraordinary skills, these essential to keep no matter agonies that came with them. Not sure for what reasons Warner Oland suffered, but they ran deep, exhibited if unknowingly for our gratification, and I hope he got at least momentary relief, by performances unique and not capturable by others prior or since. Yogami will do what is necessary to possess the Mariphasa, but we understand his reasons and sympathize with acts needed to postpone damnation. Did Oland reveal himself through vessel that was Yogami? Intensity of his performance suggests so. 

Actor Henry Hull has been called stolid or too theatrical. For me, in this instance, he is neither. Dr. Glendon had problems well before embarking upon eccentric quest for the Mariphasa. Of what possible use was such a plant to mankind? --- yet his pursuit is single-minded, venturing into a “valley filled with demons” against which he is warned, but Glendon dwells in his own valley that is solitude, as do many researchers consumed by their interest, whether it be the Mariphasa or … old films like Werewolf of London? Glendon’s absorption in peculiar plants render him odd to wellborn peers put off by specimen that consume insects and frogs. Could any marriage flourish amidst this? Lisa Glendon married wisely if not well, choosing one of the “black Glendons,” a family of her class, and being practical, Lisa must and will marry within that class. Wilfred surely intrigued her initially, for doesn’t membership among aristocracy permit a man to pursue his own lights without regard to necessaries other men must labor to acquire? Such privilege as Wilfred is heir to gives him time, resource, and license to be the singular person he is, but what becomes of those able to live precisely as they please? We all have it in us to chase after one Mariphasa or another, friends/family to wonder why. Wilfred had the misfortune to find his, but who could have put brakes on him, other than fellow werewolf who is Yogami who understands Glendon more completely than anyone.

Werewolfery thus intrudes into lives of victims already given to addictive or at the least immoderate behavior. We want all of Mariphasas to bloom so both Wilfred and Yogami may find relief, but like with any substance abused, there is knowing that one, even a hundred, such flowers, can never be enough. Lycanthropy compels interest for being a most secret of sufferings, a reason I find werewolves uniquely believable among monsters otherwise fanciful. Wilfred achieves state of poignant grace when, alone and in throes of anxiety, prays “Father in Heaven, don’t let this happen to me again,” panic disorder writ largest, but are episodes we might experience so markedly different? Whatever … it is such moments that distinguish Werewolf of London for me. Wilfred’s powerful exit line is one any of us might summon when curtains descend: “In a few moments, I shall know why all this had to be.” Bravo to whoever penned such memorable farewell for this Werewolf of London.

Monday, October 09, 2023

More Blu-Ray Monsters Upon Us

The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews Make Good Combo Company

Interest sustains in The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews thanks to a newly released Blu-Ray combining the two, so please answer: Who’s buying them? Witnesses to then that was 1959 are at best seventy or over, a generation for nostalgia “Cruise Nights” my town used to host for auto buffs. Our “Jack’s Drive-In” of precious memory updated pole speakers so in-car diners could relive 50/60’s simpler time, these mowed down now that Jack's serves Mexican only, and under roof. Cruisers for most part sold their wheels or traded them for old-folk scooters like I see increasing number of. The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews are classified now as “howlers,” so wretched as to amuse, but to what degree … falling off the sofa, or but faintly? We have laughed at, or been instructed to laugh at, old monster pix for long as it’s been since Gila/Shrews was/were new, but in fact, I never found either funny in smug sense. Would only a fool admire these for overcoming limits to entertain way better than anyone could have dreamed at the time? Why not focus on what they do remarkably right? First of bouquets: the poster art. Gila/Shrews had brilliant posters, Shrews one-sheet current-selling in excess of a grand if you can find one. The why? is answered just by looking --- a woman’s shoe, puddle of blood, a tentacle draped over --- “all that was left after …” says the legend. Did independent producing Gordon McLendon hire Madison Avenue to compose this, or did a Texan pal have the brainstorm? Either way, it dazzles. So too does Gila, its claw reaching down for hot-rodders in screaming flight. “Only Hell Could Breed Such an Enormous Beast … Only God Could Destroy It!” There’s modern slant to this design, note simplicity, understatement if such a thing can be applied to The Giant Gila Monster. I hope this double feature gave plentiful profit, because the McLendons deserved it.

They were father/son radio and TV and theatres and you-name it entrepreneurs, breathless trade calling the McLendons “fabulously successful at everything.” Having derived from Texas stock that shot the works in all direction, old man McLendon and Junior figured they could do at least as good and probably better than films they booked. The pair were of sort John Wayne courted when he sought investors for The Alamo, except why give Duke money when they could throw dice themselves? Concept that was The Giant Gila Monster was on one hand absurdly simple, just kids (if overgrown, lead Don Sullivan thirty years old), rock and roll (Don rolled his own, and sang them), souped-up jalopies like Andy Hardy drove, and a blowed-up lizard to slither under miniature bridges and toy trains. Real-life record spinner of McLendon employ Ken Knox (who knew how far his voice travelled?) lent celebrity of sorts, the cast less known otherwise but professionals all as producers did their hiring in Hollywood to lend sheen, director Ray Kellog (for both pics) an old hand at weaving silk purse from pig ears. You gather by now my profoundest respect for this venture, much as was expressed for The Horror of Party Beach and Teenagers from Outer Space. Could home-based technology top the McLendons? Can our video smart phones smarten us up enough to shoot ten days in the yard and get result equal to theirs? Fun to imagine a Texas tornado resulting from success of Gila/Shrews, oil tycoons and varied got-riches dabbling in monster movies. Sounds like viable project for Jett Rink if beneath dignity of the Benedicts, so long as we assign filmmaking duty to fictional Longhorners.

Gordon McLendon wasn’t above “acting” in The Killer Shrews. In fact, he’s pretty good, reminding me a little of George Fenneman’s character in The Thing, Gordon putting performance where his money was. For the record, upward of $100K went into Gila/Shrews (for each, or both?). They sold the pair on state’s rights basis plus burning through venues family-owned, which were many, long time showmen who were McLendon friends willing also to take a flyer. At least at this level fewer got cheated, as I bet father/son canvassed Midwest houses and counted receipts themselves. Gila/Shrews would have been well into gravy by time of leaving these territories, and I wonder if the McLendons bothered with percentage deals on State’s Rights basis when lump sum payment up front would at least save them being rooked by remote managements. Let’s assume too that at least some American-International exchanges took up Gila/Shrews once the combo exited Texas and vicinities. AI peddlers knew paired B/W monster merchandise by ’59 was on ways out. Jim Nicholson had said so at trade gathers. Did Gila/Shrews canvas whole of a wide US? We know it played foreign because there are posters that survive, if not so creative as ours. Local Allen Theatre hosted a three-day run, followed a few days later by AI’s Sign of the Gladiator, Jim/Sam realizing times had changed, their strongman show a largest AIP hit yet. I was up Main Street watching The Shaggy Dog at the Liberty --- why didn’t older siblings or cousins take me to Gila/Shrews? I must ask if any remember the Allen's monster combo, to which they will doubtless look askance. Speaking of money and how it did or did not spread, I note Ken Curtis as “producer” for both Gila and Shrews. Does that mean he invested, bought an interest? If so, did he cash in when chips came, or end up like Alex Nicol and ilk who came up snake eyes for all of work making The Screaming Skull, and others such.

The Killer Shrews
did at least command youth respect. Neighbor Babes Lowe, who in 1963 assured me that Natalie Wood danced fully naked in Gypsy, also swore that The Killer Shrews was among the most terrifying films ever made ... pity I had not seen it and likely never would, he added. This sort of thing happened a lot then (remember Tony in the lunch line swearing that a lion bit off a man’s head in Black Zoo?). Sobering realization … Babes and Tony have been gone now for many years. Those Killer Shrews lingered in my mind as something scary, and maybe that’s why I find them so even now, chiefly for creeper sound effect shrews make, and awful teeth the actor dogs were obliged to wear (local pets as monster threat). Once The Killer Shrews gets going, it is very intense. When toothy pooches pile on Festus, look out. What do outlaw horrors have in common with rock and roll, other than one being exploited by the other? The late fifties should be dubbed Invasion of the Small Labels, for like killing shrews, they were everywhere, feeding off mainstream makers of music and movies. These weren’t gnats to brush off, but innovators far in front of staid industry that in the case of records was still selling doggies in the window and doing films as though we had but lately passed Depression and war. I’ve been listening to a CD set called Rockin’ Bones (from Rhino) which is all “Rockabilly,” and sourced off tiny labels gone now but were once mover/shakers sniffing after hits or even misses that could earn, their little adding up to a lot, records cheap to produce and distribute. What pebbles in shoes these were for corporations that thought they controlled popular sounds. Look how RCA snapped up Elvis soon as he generated heat. Big sharks had to swallow little fish, and so it was with films. Playing time theatres gave to likes of Gila/Shrews was ongoing affront to establishment Hollywood.

Are The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews cult movies? I would say yes, for simple fact there is something innately appealing about Gila monsters and shrews. “Gila monster” fairly trips off my tongue. Does it yours? There was actually a sequel to The Killer Shrews, starring James Best, in 2012. I watched the trailer on IMDB this morning and came away desirous to see the feature. Are there McLendon family members who yet take pride in Gila/Shrews? I’m told the combo was among early totems of VHS collecting. There was TV exposure from Gila/Shrews being absorbed into an American-International syndication package announced June 19, 1963, “69 exploitable post-’50 films, titles available five years from theatrical release date.” Deal was for the group to run first on five ABC owned-and-operated stations, after which, on January 1, 1965, the sixty-nine would land on twenty other US stations that had bought in. The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews debuted among this group, the McLendons having made a deal with AIP to handle their properties, and of course, paying Jim/Sam a distribution fee. Our Channel 3 in Charlotte had a Friday night “Horror Theatre” slot to host the AIP’s beginning Jan.1 with The Day the World Ended. In March we got The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews, at which time I was finally able to determine if Babes had told me the truth about The Killer Shrews, reminded again that personal opinions are entirely subjective. Being lumped so long with AI’s made many assume Gila/Shrews were AI product. There are fans of sufficient fervor as to track down participants, like Bryan Senn who interviewed Don Sullivan of Gila fame, audio included on the Blu-Ray, a disc lavishly appointed and a credit to The Film Masters, new entity and future source for classic titles based on announcements they are making, theirs a crackerjack job transferring The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews, both wide and proud for a first time since 1959 playdates. By all means seek out the pair for an assured good time.

Monday, October 02, 2023

The Precodes Are Loose #1


Thirties Trek Back and Let Pre-Codes Commence

After chaotic fashion of Greenbriar’s ongoing Film Noir series, we engage now the Precode era, never minding alphabetical policy that drove noir into shoals (a year and a half in and still with the B’s). Precode selections will be random, titles not addressed before at GPS. Precode is less rich a vein than noir mostly because it had a distinct beginning and finite end, in upon wings of sound, out with vigorous enforcement of the Code as of summer 1934. Noir defines more fluidly; we customize it to suit ourselves, thus Ford Fairlane included. Precode and noir ran a trendy race over decades since being identified, noir in the seventies, precode later when TNT, AMC, and finally TCM made many available to celebrate. Appears now that noir as tortoise has overtaken hare that is precode. Frisky though they were and remain, precodes don’t age as well, their language increasingly a foreign one, slanguage precious few remain to translate. Noir soothes for more modern backgrounds and attitude, less damnably old at least. Reality of early 30’s audience gone in toto cools ardor for stuff they were first to see, precode not the “thing” it was. So much too is inaccessible. Think owner Disney will loose bounty that is the Fox Film Corporation and precodes we long to look at? Not likely. Precode it seems has become more the stuff of connoisseurs, filmic equivalent of Latin or Greek cipher. There still is capacity to shock, often for reasons that would not have been apparent when precodes were new. Context counts and then-reaction that was trade talk and exhibitor activism will play into this and future columns on the topic, beginning with grenade toss that was Sign of the Cross in 1932, also theme by chance today that is Loretta Young, recent focus on TCM, thus view of three with her as follow:

LOOSE ANKLES (1930) --- Nearly ankled this for antiquity almost oppressive, surest test of so-called film lovers their patience for 1929-30 releases. Loose Ankles is comedy not funny, threat to be a musical except no one sings, and a cast finding feet at talk. Copyright date in credits reads 1929, so learn-on-the-talking-job prevails. Story in nutshell: Heiress seeks scandal so she can lose a large inheritance under terms of a will. She already has more money than she could spend, relatable (not) to crowds watching in 1930 who knew hard times were a-coming. Fascinating how good ideas prior to October 1929 became bad ideas so soon after. Loose Ankles would have been hooted out of venues had any used it by 31-32, not a likelihood as product was spent like bathroom tissue and flushed as fast. Imagine Loretta Young or Douglas Fairbanks Jr. coming upon Loose Ankles on late 50’s TV. Must have seemed to them like strangers doing foolish things on that blurry tube. We all have aspects of past that embarrass now, disco era conduct or some such, but to be besieged nightly by stuff so mortifying to moderns … how did Doug and Gretchen face friends the next day? Fairbanks talked about this some in his books, and Bette Davis never lived down her salad days, like Parachute Jumper for instance, with Doug. Just occurs to me --- Salad Days was what latter called his first memoir, apt to be sure. Screen veterans needed a late show support group. I’d take the gas pipe over watching Loose Ankles again but don’t regret the TCM sit. Proceedings were based on a play, so … did the play amuse? It had 168 performances in 1926-27, good by Broadway standard. Loretta Young was sixteen when she did Loose Ankles, by then having seen it all and then some.

THEY CALL IT SIN (1932) --- Country-bashing cousin to Hot Saturday, They Call It Sin gets in rural licks via city slick David Manners hot/bothered over Kansas blossom (among weeds) Loretta Young, who plays the church organ when she should pursue higher purpose that is Broadway, says Manners. Her parents revealed not to be her parents (won’t detail that) are dedicated repressors, praying at table, all such bunkum as defined by denizens of day-of-locust Hollywood. Again I get fully why heartlanders turned solidly against sneering biz, enough insults enough by 1933-34. They Call It Sin turns timid to extent of Young-Manners not indulging youth’s passion, her assuring Mom-Dad not Mom-Dad she’s “done nothing to be ashamed of,” shorthand that no consummation took place, surprising (if disappointing) device prior to strict apply of the Code. I wanted them to have had a tumble, especially in light of silly sacrifice Manners makes in a third act, followed by Young’s outlandish attempt at same, then everybody having selfless go, including Louis Calhern, a satisfying heavy up to then. There is fun of him plus George Brent, Una Merkel, more. Talk about gagging at noble intent, there is soon-to-be-stale exchange between proposed adulterers, to wit “We can’t build our happiness upon the unhappiness of others,” which I bet no would-be adulterers in real life ever said, or ever will. Lesson of They Call It Sin: Not all pre-code dealt raw. Had Warners been warned? Best thing about frisky film from that period is likelihood people will comport like flawed rest of us, and They Call It Sin does not quite do that.

Early thirties as torrid stream of precode pleases in principle, but facts belie belief that ribald rousers never had things so good. Example among many: Sign of the Cross as directed by C.B. DeMille in 1932, a five-alarm biblical fire stanched till a complete 35mm print was found in the director’s basement vault. Paramount had reissued Sign of the Cross in 1944, shorn of sex and violence rife in 1932 prints, but were even those from ’32 intact? Pete Harrison of free-thinking Harrison’s Reports saw and was incensed, by Sign of the Cross when roadshown in New York, where “some women fainted; others put their hands across their eyes to shut out the dreadful views.” Screen story revolved around Christian persecution by Rome, “gladiators … fighting to death with pitchforks; amazons piercing dwarfs with their swords; a tiger feeding on human flesh; an elephant stepping on the head of a human being and crushing him to death, and other horrible sights.” Harrison reported some of footage removed after opening day, “and a suggestion was made to Mr. DeMille to cut out more of the scenes of cruelty, but he did not accept it.” Noise was getting to Paramount East Coast brass. Would the company lose money for too-explicit distillation of the Good Book? Sign of the Cross went to Radio City Music Hall where manager Harold Franklin hauled the print to his on-site editing room and took out all offending portions, “leaving only enough … to suggest the cruelty of the Romans.” A rape of art? Not the way Franklin saw it, him merely protecting his theatre’s investment. Who needed customer complaints and women fainting? Hard to know what countrywide audiences later saw once Sign of the Cross got into general release, but I’m guessing it kept little faith with DeMille’s vision. What he preserved in that basement was undoubtedly complete --- would he have kept the print otherwise? We are shocked by films summarily cut today, but wait, what of The French Connection? Sign of the Cross happily survives as DeMille intended, Kino’s Blu-Ray having been sourced from his keepsake. Call this happy accident of fate, then mourn anew those precodes gelded and never put right, unlikely to be ours again as intended by makers.

TAXI (1931) --- Seems taxi wars were real in New York, cabs hijacked, fares cut and then tires, a carnival with checkered bumper cars smashing into each other, drivers dragged out and sometimes killed. Hard blaming short fuse that is Cagney’s “Matt Nolan” whom Strand audiences ID’ed intensely with, smacking sweethearts round and resorting regular to fists and gun. His was simplest survival mechanism as 1931-32 public saw it, but which public? Certainly not rural ones, these understandably shocked by collapse of civilization evidently the lot of US sliver that was over-represented Gotham in movies. How dependent was Cagney stardom upon urban trade? Much of early thirties Warner lost money, bloom off rose that was talkies-as-novelty. Taxi had a $250K negative cost and earned $458K in domestic rentals, $115K foreign. Final profit was $80K, better than it sounds because this was Depression money with something preferred always to nothing. Take away the Strand and NY boroughs cash and I wonder if Taxi, or Cagney, could have lasted. He needed out of crime and go-getter topics to keep a following, the star hep to risk of sameness. Meaningful was Footlight Parade being his biggest to 1933 point, service yarns after to confirm Cagney as more mainstream, not just a hoodlum with humor. Taxi posited the coming star as still grapefruit wielding threat, less funny than scary when he bats Loretta Young about. She takes it, doesn’t like it, but still takes it. Question was whether a wide public would take it. Did New Yawkers cheer such conduct? Taxi went toward explaining why outliers dreaded the place and would largely avoid it. Ninety years later, have things changed, except maybe for the worse?
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