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Monday, January 29, 2024

Watch List for 1/29/2024


Watched: The Cyclops, Law of the Underworld, The Band Plays On, Warlock, and Before Dawn

THE CYCLOPS (1957) --- Who'd have dreamed a sci-fi junker like this would so rivet generations after sixty, closer to seventy, years. I watch ... and again I watch ... for no sensible reason. Maybe it's contemplation of obnoxious roar the title monster issues (Paul Frees said to have devised it), or perhaps one or all of humbled names engage me: James Craig (remote on the location, said co-star Gloria Talbott --- could you blame him?), Tom Drake (the Boy Next Door now next to blown-up iguanas) ... and then there's "the Lonster." Chaney did serious work, applied himself accordingly, for likes of High Noon, Not As a Stranger, and The Defiant Ones. And then there were those, such as The Cyclops, wherein he slummed, and visibly, cork out, as it were, to play down-market parts on wobbly chalk mark. Chaney was no way diminished by half-lit performing, only question being, was it half or whole? Certain actors with a bun on were better than others sober and at full strength, Chaney notable among them. His fans like Lon unpredictable with wont to walk through prop walls, only here he's loose outdoors, very much home ground for LCJr., who loved camping and takes to hard ground like a grizzly laid out for winter rest. Chaney would have been a fun co-worker for washed-out-of-Metro Tom Drake, himself no shunner of the bottle. Gloria said close quarters with these two (in an airplane mock-up) made her tipsy just breathing their air. Drake was by 1957 working where he could and selling cars when he couldn't, still going on the MGM lot for haircuts because it was home to him. And now comes question I must ask: Is the title a misnomer? Were we to assume that plural use implies multiple Cyclops, or would a singular Cyclop also be called a Cyclops? My spell check just tripped on "Cyclop," so clearly Allied Artists was right and I am wrong, or at least misguided.

In any event, there would not have been budget to allow for Cyclopi, or Cyclop by two, or rival brother Cyclops, or even a Siamese Cyclops, one with a right eye, the other with a left. The Cyclops was produced, directed, written, and effects by Bert I. Gordon, a do-it-yourselfer to enervating effect for his audience, mostly kids who spent allowance unwisely to see his refuse. But wait, here I'm knocking The Cyclops again, when it's plain I love it. 66 minutes yields the following: Lon Chaney --- sci-fi dream girl that is Gloria Talbott, who gave marvelous interviews in latter years, most notably to genre historian Tom Weaver --- James Craig doing Clark Gable impression over a decade after he'd been ejected from Metro for the same --- Lon Chaney --- monsters that are fake beyond wildest presumption of 8mm home movie makers --- Bronson Cave location but lately vacated by John Ford and crew of The Searchers --- Lon Chaney --- a spear deftly thrown by Craig/Gable into the very eye of the Cyclops, a stunner moment omitted from some prints, and initially so from Warner Archives' DVD, but once alerted, they made effort to find, and put back, the missing frames ... now that's customer service.

LAW OF THE UNDERWORLD (1938) --- The "Law" as title-referred obliges likeable crook Chester Morris to sacrifice all for simpy lovers Ann Shirley and Richard Bond, unknowing pawns in his jewel robbing scheme. A trouble for many with the Code was its unbending rule that crime must never pay, so from first shot fired, we know Morris is doomed and no act of contrition will save him. Like Cagney, Bogart, and street-wisers in higher pay, Morris could die for a finish to dry eyes exiting theatres, but here was player and performance winning our sympathy, then frustrating same with an ending both arbitrary and unwelcome. Or maybe it's just me liking Chester Morris and deploring his facing the rope. Morris was encased in B's by the late 30's and on eve of long run as Boston Blackie, his budget-bags happily mixed ones, whither he be aviator, crime boss, whatever action occupation, he was always capable ... versatile ... enough to pull what would otherwise be commonplace vehicles to something often special or at the least entertaining. Law Of The Underworld showed up on TCM as part of a Lew Landers (director) day.

THE BAND PLAYS ON (1934) --- Wrong-side-of-track boys are redeemed by football coach Preston Foster, who sees them into college sport. An MGM programmer that takes serious the compromise made by schools valuing field wins over classroom distinction, a theme more common than we'd expect. The Band Plays On was neither first nor last to wag finger at sell-outs by coaching staff/players, an underworld always in wings to tempt athletes otherwise true to their schools. For this instance it's Robert Young and Stuart Erwin on pigskin duty, Ted Healy his usual bad influence in trying to sign Young onto pro ball, latter but quicksand so far as Hollywood thought. School sports were OK, building body and character and all that, but playing for hire smacked not only of vice (gambling, fixed games, etc.), but the worse crime of competing with motion pictures for our recreational hours. This was downfall from which steadfast movie-going boys had to be protected. Metro's trailer sold The Band Plays On as "A Comedy Drama For All Whose Hearts Are Young," which could as easily sum up three-quarters of any studio's output in 1934. The Band Plays On is entertaining, if a reel overlong. Seen on TCM.

WARLOCK (1959) --- Town tamer Henry Fonda is hired by outlaw-beset townsmen to rid the place of Tom Drake and terrorizers, of which Richard Widmark is reluctant member. An adult western of high aspiration, Warlock gets tangled in ambitious narrative, but scores A for effort of rising above genre formula. Fonda as a philosophical gunman is like repeat of his Wyatt Earp with pages more of dialogue, and Doc Holliday update in the person of Anthony Quinn makes for bromance between the two that was rare stuff in 50's westerns. Saddle-bred filmmakers competition by 1959 wasn't other filmmakers, but television producers of westerns, which were improving all the time, Gunsmoke an ongoing standout among "adult" frontier fare. Warlock could go that distance, plus more in terms of sex/violence stepped up since the war. Added advantage of Cinemascope and color added value that could not be duplicated at home. Change came on Euro wind as the 60's approached, Italian oaters redefining the genre and putting even mature work like Warlock in permanent shade. There was but The Wild Bunch to make all westerns gone before seem quaint, but some asked what all that license had gained us, and they could point to work like Warlock as exhibit A of old way being perhaps better (or at least more grown-up). Twilight Time had a Blu-Ray, out of print now.

BEFORE DAWN (1933) --- This dark house thriller-with-humor was originally to be called Death Watch, but that title didn't sound like fun, so RKO held a contest (for $50 prize) to find a new one. A right label was important, as inappropriate choice could mean death at the boxoffice, never mind merit of the movie being tendered. Before Dawn was the anemic last resort --- you could call anything that and convey no more idea as to what story was about. In this case, it's vice dick Stuart Erwin, playing more or less straight, on quest for hidden cash socked away in a could-be spook house. Horror elements are distinct --- Before Dawn should be better known for that reason --- but again, that vanilla title. Warner Oland is a sinister medico told by a patient he mercy-killed where $ is hid, plus there's Dorothy Wilson as a clairvoyant whose future-seeing is on the level and not exposed later as a hoax. In other words, fantasy aspect is upheld and we don't get rugs yanked from under as was too often case in mysteries. Pace is brisk under Irving Pichel direction. This shows up on occasion at TCM, one of those you'd not know existed until random confront by it at 2 AM, or anytime for that matter, before dawn.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Precode Picks #2


Precodes: Let Us Be Gay, Smart Money, Dark Hazard, Susan Lenox, and a Hot Lobby Card

LET US BE GAY (1930) --- Doormat duckling turns swan when wife Norma Shearer gets shaft from straying husband Rod LaRoque, this after she bore him two kids if traipsing about the house with hair ribbons and endlessly singing “I Love You, I Love You,” a treacly tune I know not the origin of. Norma really pulls out stops for opener scenes here, no make-up and believe me, Shearer without war paint was plain personified; you’d not figure her to have ever been a movie star, let alone in a position to remain one. Let Us Be Brave might have been more apt title here, as Norma yields not an inch to glamour expectation. Were fans shocked? I sort of was but admired Norma the more for stepping so far out of safe space. There’s reason why she tops among favorites. Let Us Be Gay creaks by compare with The Divorcee and fireworks it had, but I’m told a Frisco revival had lines round block from the Castro Theatre. Did they misunderstand what Let Us Be Gay was about? The source play by Rachel Crothers ran from February 1929 to December of the same year, 353 performances  at the “Little Theatre,” which was built in 1912 and seated 597. Ross Alexander starred and Warren William had a support part. One and only Robert Benchley reviewed for the old LIFE magazine: “A little better than moderately good, but nothing to go home and fling yourself on the couch over.” Shame we can’t travel back in time and view the play. Seeing the film is near as good however, the whole having been shot like on stage with a cast posed and waiting for cues. Country estate setting and life among idle rich is again a backdrop, this reliable for necessary stillness and no one getting too far afield of microphones. Best aspect of Let Us Be Gay is Shearer’s transform from dowdy to chic. Will she reconcile with errant husband she encounters at Marie Dressler’s weekend gather? Precode by calendar definition if less fun in sense of other Normas from like period, though certainly worth a look, available from Warner Archive and run on TCM in HD.

SMART MONEY (1931) and DARK HAZARD (1934) --- Taken aback by a Warner memo found in outstanding book that was Scoundrels and Spitballers, Edward G. Robinson topic of March 1935 in-house discussion: “ … there is no denying the obvious: Robinson is no longer the star he once was. The public has already decided this.” Robert Lord, who knew his creative business, wrote this. Correspondence among execs and producing staff was seldom site for tact. Lord’s note went to Wallis, whose patience with players was, like anyone’s, dictated by their standing at ticket windows. Had anyone confided to Edward G. Robinson that he was on the slide? Chances are he felt it by attitude and body language going in and out of WB’s commissary and sound stages. Any actor was hypersensitive to standing. Question from our distance is, why had the public lost interest in Eddie, if indeed they had? Two of his viewed lately give a hint, Smart Money, which came next after Little Caesar, and Dark Hazard of a few years later, presumably when the star began to slip. The two along with several others of Robinson’s precode lot have an element in common, that is him as braggart, would-be ladies’ man, self-declared winner who always lost. He’s a luckiest gambler in the world till chips go ways down in Smart Money, light confection before last reel application of ice water, tone change not unknown to then WB programmers. Nick “The Barber” Venizelos is loud, vain, and a chump for hard dames. Robinson was five foot four and a half it is said, so how to credibly get the girl? Trouble was he took onscreen falls until they got monotonous. I for one like little guys to win, at least every now and then. Writers at Warners were intent on keeping Eddie behind eight balls. Love was constantly denied him, us allowed, encouraged, to feel his characters not entitled to it.

An outside picture for Columbia, I Am the Law, gave relief, if temporary. Robinson is happily wed and prevails over criminal element, maturity meaning he won’t have to bellow or brag so much as in formative past. Dark Hazard snatches a cheery ending from jaws of yet more loss, a save for the movie I did not expect but was pleased to get. Robinson could show heart in ways he almost certainly improvised, like when greeting a race dog with hugs and kisses. We don’t want such a man, or any animal lover, to end on skids. Smart Money and Dark Hazard are taken with gaming culture in all of variations, cards, horses, dice, and yes, dogs. Betting is made fun, and I wonder if a greater enforced Code added language to discourage this. Crime skirts edges of gambling, but gunplay won’t intrude on Smart Money or Dark Hazard, risk centered instead on go broke prospect behind each deal or snake eye roll. Robinson had hard luck etched in his face. He couldn’t have gotten away from it any more than other plug ugly character men, no matter their brilliance as actors, an image fortified by Eddie’s offscreen travails, worst of these a wife who wanted a movie prince and grudgingly took a frog, worst of all letting E.G. regularly know it. He at least had a fabulous art collection to keep him warm, but even that went half to the monster spouse once he finally got shed of her. A second mate appreciated him, in fact shared his intense interest in paintings. Fans of Robinson perhaps identify with him more than with profiles labelled splendid. Imitators used to be everywhere but now are gone. I saw a video where Billy Crystal spoke to his admiration, did his Eddie voice, all to the good till it hit me that Crystal's own tribute was thirty years ago at least.

SUSAN LENOX (1931) --- Must passion come at such price as here? Promising engineer Clark Gable, full of concepts to build a better bridge, enjoys rustic cabin idyll with G. Garbo, is betrayed by her (GG not altogether at fault, as carny viper John Miljan can be persuasive). Gable falls to ruin as result, which by that I mean drunken, derelict, wandering seas-sort-of-ruin which no woman should be empowered to cause, not even Garbo at throbbing summit. What Gable as “Rodney” needed was some of Gary Cooper’s Morocco detachment, latter a preferred precode role model for boys otherwise ensnared by sirens. Greta Garbo was Metro-proposed temptation no male could resist, ideally (they thought) cast as Mata Hari in same year as Susan Lenox, but what of GG and males today? We could guess majority response to such query, not to Swedish Sphinx advantage, but might one say the same of Dietrich? Exotic travels well, or doesn’t. What lured in the thirties will not necessarily lure ninety years hence. Guys picking precode winner today, prospect for prom date anyway, would likely lean Toby Wing’s way, or as-qualified Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Gloria Stuart, pick a partner as there were plenty. Garbo suffered no matter comfort of circumstance, Susan a coddled concubine of OK older guys and even a marriage prospect (one proposes), a sounder choice than sullen and still drink-addled Gable. And where does latter come off so destroyed by any woman’s misconduct? Again the Gary Cooper parallel. These guys by their looks and carriage could get on with healing and be healed in a hurry, just for being Gable or Cooper, that after all why men in the audience cheer them and women swoon them. Audiences prefer heroes to pick up pieces quick and proceed on next jungle trek or turn of wheel that is vigor life. No brooding for my role models please.

LOBBY CARD LURE OR LURID? --- Did movies, at least promotion of them, invite rigid enforcement of the Code? Here is further evidence that yes, they did. I’ve long been of opinion that advertising was a worse bugbear than the films themselves, ads much more viewed than what played inside. Lobby cards shouted to the streets from fronts and cooperating store windows. Maybe you could avoid watching Melody Cruise in 1933, but you’d not duck same going in or out of the theatre, let alone in newspapers, looking at a magazine, passing a billboard. And don’t overlook tire covers spinning the message. Was there nudity in Melody Cruise? We might say no but tell that to a mother in 1933 as Junior peers up close at border art on the lobby card shown here. Promotion took liberties as everyone knows, but here was promise of things forbidden whatever license precodes were presumed to have. This was cootch dancers giving it all up on the midway and then covering up once ticket buyers sat down in the tent. So-called “bluenoses” need not examine evidence on screens when glance at posters told all they needed to know. Film companies could police what pressbooks printed, but who among creative showmen relied on pressbooks? More than one told me they were useless but to wrap fish, for what did far-off distributors know of hometowns and what they’d buy? Theatre ads in willing newspapers could scorch where needed, and in hard times, such heat was always needed (see a chapter devoted to such in The Art of Selling Movies). I’m surprised a crackdown did not come sooner. What then of Melody Cruise? Chances are it’s no better or bolder that whatever else RKO had up precode sleeves, proof of pudding frequent on TCM. Examine the lobby card, see the pic, and let us know if Melody Cruise in any way delivers upon extravagant border claims.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Must Art Be One of a Kind To Be Art?

If You Can't Make It, Then Fake It

Art as defined for a past hundred and twenty-five years was “there” in terms of painting, sculpture or whatever solid thing was one of its kind, not shareable in terms of taking possession to later enjoy at home. Art no longer unique was no longer classified as art, essential aura lost where reproduced and made commercially available. What one could own could not be art. German thinker Walter Benjamin spoke to contrary and on behalf of new arrived photography, recorded sound, and moving pictures, modern means by which art could travel and be anyone’s property that wanted it. No more seeking out a museum to view a masterpiece. Benjamin felt art as accessible was all to the good, but elitists wanting it for themselves, at least control of it, decried movies among other “mechanical reproducibility” formats as fouling streams pure since Grecians chipped at marble. Expert appreciators spoke/speak of sensation one presumably feels when standing before a masterpiece in museum residence. Well and good, but mind you don’t stand too close, or get reckless with hands. My policy is to put both arms behind my back, fingers locked so as to reassure roving guards I’ll not spring forward sudden with a spray can. Widened definition of art makes us all guards to what we personally value and call great, aura achieved from flipping on a remote or opening a new-arrived graphic novel. Latter taught at university level are landmarks along victory lap for folk that define art on broadest terms, Artificial Intelligence next to be dubbed creative and worthy of regard. Today a tool toward art, but will AI eventually become art in itself? I’ve read tech-generated text, am regularly fooled by humans interacting upon digital landscape that is neither landscape nor people, not of concern to me either way, but ones that are interested, often intensely so, have embraced all this not merely as art, but life. The better video games amount to preferred world for many who would leave ours and join theirs. With right tools and expertise, I could make Star War sequels tumble merrily off my desktop, this an abiding fear of once entrenched industry, because who’s to say when ersatz Star Wars will improve upon authorized ones? (some claim they already have)

“Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” went the song, and so chorus too is sung by creators and “influencers” sucking life’s blood from an overfed Hollywood establishment that till recent thought they were unassailable. Appears artists all over creation are breaching walls with better stuff than tired corporate can conceive or even compete with. When what used to be “blockbusters” play to seat backs, you’ve got to figure a new epoch is upon us. Non-specific as they were, folk like Benjamin saw it coming. Were he around today, would Benjamin have a You Tube channel? Course he would. This is the future, not spilling prose over blogs. Toward differ with stolids Benjamin reacted to, I would propose that reproducible art can be, in fact always was, unique art, where you found one-of-kind offering of it. That was especially true of film as celluloid when that one and definitive print of a classic, or seeming one since you’d never come across another, became precious in its way as a Rembrandt. This often happened when film was circulated on film. I’ve talked it plenty where topic was collecting. One man’s print of The Sea Hawk could send others’ begging, difference (crucial) being purpose for which that print was generated. If for television they’d be grey and low contrast, the better for vid transmission. The one in a hundred “unique” was maybe not fully that for surely there was another, and comparable, floating about somewhere, but where? Now it hardly matters because everything is digital and we are all created equal as consumers of quality undreamt of when film on film was object of pursuit.

Recently saw TCM premiering A Man’s Castle intact (1933), cut and denuded since early-on reissues that drew minutes plus much of life out of a much-missed precode. Now it is suddenly back as anybody who cares exults, surprise an element as who knew a complete Man’s Castle existed? This I aver is “unique” in modern parallel to canvas hanging on one wall and no other. Same sense of uniquity applies where we speak of Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum, and Our Dancing Daughters. Every time Kino releases a new Blu-Ray of an old title, or TCM High-Defs another from Sliver Era, there are or should be ringing of bells. Much of this amounts to old becoming new again. Look at what 4K does for Hitchcock and Universal horrors. A You Tube video lately compared iterations of Now Voyager as released on laser disc way back when, then “standard” DVD, and finally Blu-Ray. Cutting from one to the other, then the next, is education in less than seven minutes nutshell. We’ve sure come longest ways of late, but wait, wasn’t laser disc the ultimate thing over thirty years ago? Rebirth is not limited to movies. Weeks ago, I wrote of what Mark Vieira has been doing with still images, his work better than what studios issued when stuff was new. All this is doable on a desktop, though one must have Vieira’s expertise, product of over fifty years in photographic field, mere fact such results are possible miracle enough. Serious enough application might make artists of anyone, though some wonder if advanced tech has made jobs too easy. “Auto-Tune” as adjunct to creation of music enables me or anyone to create an album before suppertime, means no assure of mastery, yet many, and I mean tens of thousands, generate “robot” music without ever picking up an instrument or voicing a lyric, that is, in their own voice. There are devices to make me Judy Garland or Perry Como, or anybody in whatever tune I elect to record, end result my product, yours, anybody’s. Millions upon millions present at Spotify and/or Tik/Tok, but how many possess genuine, individual talent? There’s surely a next Michael Jackson or Joni Mitchell, but how do they get found among such mass?

Great artistry is understood to come once in lifetimes, but with so much churning, how does that one rise to surface and get recognized? I’m told “major” record labels don’t even bother developing talent anymore, the concept outmoded and utterly past. Imagine being capable of great things, yet crowded beyond hope of notice outside a handful who might momentarily come by your work, sample it for ten or twenty Tik/Tok seconds, then move to a next stimulant. Conditions were as tough before, however. Go read about vaudeville for a bracing past parallel. I hear old music now composes seventy percent of sales, growth if any in that market the fruit of catalogue past. Song libraries are a most valued commodity. A man in his late twenties asked me what concerts I remembered seeing, a band called “Chicago” my reply, as though surely he’d not be conscious of the group. “Oh yes, they’re great. I listen to them all the time,” as in of course he knew Chicago, just like he knew Journey (formed fifty years ago) and revered them too. Young people it seems are drawn more to vintage music than to new. How … when … did this happen? (a friend last week told me at least ten years ago) A resource called Auto-Tune in part explains. Auto-Tune is defined as “a software package that automatically manipulates a recording of a vocal track until it is in tune regardless of whether or not the original performance was in tune.” Seems Auto-Tune can fix any instrument, be it bass, strings, or voice. Think of it as spell-check for musicians, who need not even be musicians since sound can now be generated per digital. Such appears to comprise bulk of popular music today. I won’t claim it is “bad” as there are plenty who inveigh to that effect. Many are at You Tube --- just type in “Why Modern Music Sucks” and be off to races.

One among attackers assures us he’s no “Old Man Yelling at Clouds,” a label in heavy current usage (tabbed by Simpsons creators) and neat qualifier for matures who would otherwise express an opinion re pop cultural matters. Irony is eighteen-year-olds yelling at clouds, and looking to the past for music they might enjoy. Seems generations share desire to hear “real human beings” sing or play, or has that become unreasonable to expect? It seems cliché to claim “all songs sound the same,” yet listen and learn at You Tube, where hundreds upload comparisons of then/now and let startling results perform for themselves. And if there’s exodus away from new in favor of old, which there obviously is, why not movies in addition to music? Our Liberty Theatre featured National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation as 2023’s holiday attraction. It played pretty much through December. 1500 venues nationwide ran Die Hard, and yes, it charted. Regular scheduled oldies are policy now at lots of houses. I don’t imagine vintage seizing a marketplace but do wonder if youth exiting Die Hard ask themselves why movies today aren’t so vibrant as in 1989. To reclaim past music is one thing, old films something else, as latter dates more noticeably and the uninitiated must make peace with reality of this before embarking upon choppy sea that is classics celebration. One YT influencer compared tunes of fifty years ago to today, using “Touch Me in the Morning” by Diana Ross (1973) to show how far we’ve fallen. I remember the song, liked it, but never so much as after comparison with current offerings as sampled in the video. Am I yelling at clouds then? Is it retro-locked and out-of-touch to say modern music sounds all the same?

Greenbriar Now In Its Nineteenth Year of Yelling at Clouds

I look at online comments and wonder if perhaps they are on to something: “Auto-Tune was part of grooming people to accept AI generated music wherein talent of any sort is obsolete.” Can musical talent itself become obsolete, or be rendered obsolete by dark interests who profit more reliably on AI generated content? From millions of songs passed through Spotify and Tik/Tok blenders must come goodness on occasion, but why seek modern counterpart to Buddy Holly if you can fake something as adequate, if not good, from desktop resources? Think of savings inherent in that. If faux Buddy doesn’t work out, just delete him. Does new art merely seek to recapture values of old art? Sure looks that way what with movies chasing intellectual properties from back when intellect was applied to creation of properties. One “ghost” act to lately draw massive attention is the Beatles, two plus specter of two, the forever fab four out with another “new” song, this one called Then and Now, Then being 25-30 years ago when producers couldn’t salvage a crudest recording by John Lennon (far from finished work) as opposed to Now, when technology at sci-fi level permits his found cassette to sound pro as conceivable, result a Beatles release no one could comfortably brand as fake, however cobbled it actually was. What a modern Promethius can achieve, let alone thousands of them creating life from the dead or non-existent. Will this as steady diet eventually do? Robot music might suffice if indeed we have all become robots, or is this mere argument made back when we shouted at 50’s clouds, or any of ones floating in seventy years since? Glad I’m not a striving musician, or even a striving writer, Greenbriar content to be teensiest needle in culture’s so-far vastest haystack. 

Monday, January 08, 2024

Category Called Comedy #4


CCC: Bugs and Daffy and Bringing Up Baby

HIS BITTER HALF (1950) --- It pains me to see Daffy Duck excessively abused. I’ve often wanted his and Bugs Bunny’s circumstance reversed … give Bugs a taste of what Daffy has too long suffered. His Bitter Half is same marital hell as P. Pig endured in Porky’s Romance (1938), among most trenchant of all Warner cartoons. Daffy it’s true has wed for money, describing himself as impoverished and hopeful that life will improve by responding to a singles ad. The duck as attentive to content of a newspaper seems somehow wrong. To be daffy means to dismiss all trappings of society, but DD had played out his manic string by this time and had to embrace convention to stay relevant. That meant compromising his character in ways off-putting. Bugs Bunny avoided this by always having an opponent, this to keep busy attending to his own priorities and never mind snares a wider sphere would impose. I don’t enjoy Bugs tormenting Elmer where latter doesn’t have it coming, as in The Unruly Hare (1944), Elmer there to survey for the railroad with no intent to do harm until Bugs forces the issue. Here was where the rabbit's popularity began working against him, programmed now to bedevil all comers, and the sooner getting on with that, the better. Daffy differs because for all of venality (over)applied by the fifties, the duck just wanted what was his, and then some, but otherwise held no brief against others, unless clearly provoked. Bugs comes across like a wise-acre schoolyard bully just waiting for helpless sorts to venture near. Among unfair advantage BB enjoys is being able to disappear down his hole at any moment of the contest, and I’ve often wished his victim could follow and hand Bugs comeuppance he deserves.

Bugs at least has sense never to seek counsel or cooperation from a wider world, staying in his own back yard for most part. Daffy is arrogant enough to imagine he can tame hostile environments, marriage an option Bugs would not likely choose. Still I find no amusement in punishment piled upon the duck for mere misjudgment. Postwar Warner cartoons dealt much in domestic traps, Daffy, Porky, the rest, less of forest and lake origin than blight that was suburbia. Was this consequence of animator/writing/directing talent maturing and snared now by manicured lawns and barbecue pits? There seems less freedom in fifties cartoons, Daffy not so zany, seeking but a main chance, bent to compliance by an increasingly corporatized society, postwar lot perhaps of men who drew him. Of handlers, Chuck Jones understood best, and made fresh rather than dispiriting Daffy’s frustration ducking claw hammer that was fifties life, but no more nasty quacks lest he be punished and severely so, as in His Bitter Half where a from-hell wife threatens to “pluck every feather off your scrawny carcass,” and for an alarming fade, does just that (mercifully offscreen). Who asked to see Daffy Duck reduced to vacuuming floors? It was as if to break him meant any of us could be broken, none to overcome enforced order firmly in place. Did then-audiences feel the rebranding process, or was it gradual enough not to register fully? Television told truth stark by following 1938 cartoons with ones from 1958, or vice versa, spin wash or un-wash of favorites to train youth that life has no continuum and that we all are subject to often convulsive change.

BRINGING UP BABY (1938) --- Let me toss the grenade early and suggest that the Katharine Hepburn part should have been reversed with Virginia Walker’s “Alice Swallow,” who enters Bringing Up Baby in the opening scene and is such a dish in "severe" spectacles and dread announcement that marriage to “David Huxley” (Cary Grant) will be wholly platonic, their wedded mission to investigate dinosaur bones and never mind any/all physical contact. Now normally this would be ideal set-up for director Howard Hawks to let Cary Grant thaw such prospect over ninety minutes and make Miss Swallow grateful for overhaul of her attitude. She reminds me of Dorothy Malone’s bookseller in Hawks’ The Big Sleep, of bespectacled and pulled-back hair mien who gives in straightaway to Humphrey Bogart’s manly approach. Did Hawks cast Miss Swallow wrong? --- because I found her most distracting and wondered (hoped) for the rest of Baby’s overlong 102 minutes that she would come back. Now Hepburn would have been ideal as Miss Swallow. We could figure losing her no great loss, indeed I wished KH as “Susan Vance” would get lost so Cary could focus upon Alice and persuade her out of no-honeymoon policy as only Cary Grant could do. My much happier ending would be him doing that and Susan left to make living hell of another hapless man’s life, maybe Jack Carson or Patric Knowles, someone we'd feel less sorry for.

Not that I dislike Hepburn (have said this before, will likely do so again), though Susan Vance is wearying to extreme. Try as I might via viewings over so-far lifetime, there is just no reframing Bringing Up Baby as other than strain severe over a second half, confinement of us alongside a cast in and out of jail cells. Bringing Up Baby lost money ($365K) for a reason, perhaps several besides  Hepburn. Clearly there was limit to wacky as welcome, modern tolerance greater if reports of repertory delight are to be believed, but how much laughing went on in 1938? I’m going to guess it stopped, in fact slammed shut, at some point in this movie, departing audiences to warn friends accordingly. Comedies, at least good ones, habitually did well as everyone is presumed to like humor and will choose it where given the option, hence "comic relief" factored into almost everything. Uncharacteristic response to Bringing Up Baby would need 1938 patrons to explain, but who of them is left? Notice I said patrons as opposed to critics, for critics too often, and still, say what they think they are expected to say, whereas customers speak from the heart. Final scene where David's precious brontosaurus skeleton collapses bothers me to point of fast-forward. Should he accept Susan’s largesse of a million dollars for the museum when she has just destroyed what had been a lifelong dream and project for him? Cary Grant was of course a master at farce, but Hepburn was just discovering it, had to be coached by supporting comedians per Hawks request, outcome an actress drunk on the schooling, giddy with new-found if misplaced confidence, not knowing, perhaps not caring, how an audience will react to her escapades.

There are merry moments in Bringing Up Baby, especially early on when the cast moves around more. Pitfall of screwball can be shouting too much, as here when most of a cast repair to the country house and then to jail. The animals are engaging, especially the cat which I hoped would molest someone just to surprise us. Watching Bringing Up Baby makes us realize how totally Peter Bogdanovich appropriated Hawks and creators’ effort with What’s Up Doc?. Think too of how Hawks copied himself less than ten years before What’s Up Doc? when he re-did the ripped coat and torn dress routine for Man’s Favorite Sport. Had Bringing Up Baby become a buff-driven “thing” by 1963? I don’t know for sure when it began showing up on revival screens, maybe because NC’s revival screens were just for Thunder Road and later Billy Jack. I could wonder too if Cary Grant went to see himself played by Ryan O’Neal. So which --- honestly --- is the better film, Bringing Up Baby or What’s Up Doc? Criterion has a Blu-Ray of Bringing Up Baby where they point up difficulty finding elements, the negative having long gone to dogs. Remarkable how so many titles survive by skin of teeth. Question to close: How many, if any, have seen Bringing Up Baby with a full audience? Did it rouse laughs throughout, or did watchers wilt as some of us tend to?

Monday, January 01, 2024

Stills That Speak #3


STS: Roscoe at Sunset, Beasts and Bombs, Our Amuzu, and Exhibition's Beginning or End?

ROSCOE STRIKES A SAD POSE --- Are so-called “silent” comedians misnamed? They are all silent now in any event, just as “sound” rest of us will eventually follow them. Many of distant yore were heard by millions, having appeared more and longer upon stages than they would on film. Roscoe Arbuckle was a live performing veteran for years before movies got him, latter but a segment between bookends that was vaudeville. Was Roscoe and fellow phoenix Harry Langdon humbled by a return to roots called variety? I’ll venture both were happier back to basics than pressure cook that was Paramount for Arbuckle, First-National for Langdon. Where it was a live act, you at least rolled your own. Arbuckle back in vaudeville enjoyed creative freedom enabled by that, plus joy of live crowds delighted to be there and letting him know it. If performing was fulfillment in itself, which accounts suggest it was, then Roscoe through the twenties and into the early thirties may have known a peak of career satisfaction through what others might assume was exile and disgrace. I'm told of Arbuckle features booed off screens during scandal's first flush, a reason several were withdrawn or never US-released, but were there incidents later of Fatty driven off vaude stages by hostile audiences? I’ve not heard of such. Whoever paid ways in knew Arbuckle was part of the program, him live appearing never a secret from those attending. Roscoe stayed busy thanks to stage work and directing comedy for others in Hollywood. The caption with the above image is misleading, composed at hindsight by someone who knew precious little of Arbuckle’s final shorts series for Vitaphone. Would such a crowd of youngsters be there to stare upon a broken man? Roscoe pulls “sad clown” expression for the camera, but I bet he funned up soon as snap was taken and pleased every kid looking on. “The public, accustomed to sophisticated humor, did not find him funny” --- wrong on innumerable counts unless I totally miss my guess as to events of ninety-plus years ago.

THE BEAST WHERE HE BEST BELONGED --- Can’t imagine a fitter spot for The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms in 1953 than North Augusta’s Cloverleaf Drive-In located at 1137 Atomic Road, so-named for neighboring Savannah River Plant where H-bombs were manufactured, dinosaurs likelier spawned from this than frozen artic Warner Bros' release proposed. The Cloverleaf opened that year with space for 776 parked vehicles. Entrance marquee as shown was a model of simplicity plus impact, the Beast with head tilted downward toward billing above Enemies of the Universe, which turns out was a chapter of Commando Cody, an ersatz sort of serial made for television but routed to theatres when all-things sci-fi saw a flush of demand. Showmen used posters as much cut up as intact to promote a program, in this instance a Beast From 20,000 Fathoms billboard-sized twenty-four sheet shorn to essential that was central monster art with which to garland the display all motorists would see as they approached the Cloverleaf. What more irresistible than prehistoric progeny of atomic power that was then basis for Augusta’s 1953 economy? Was it so far-fetched to imagine a Beast crawling out of bowels that was the Savannah River Plant? Seems to me 1137 Atomic Road was ideal for Ground Zero should dinosaurs rise to answer our nuclear call. Relevant was what all attractions sought to be --- here was that in spades. Trades took note of Cloverleaf manager M.A. Paige arranging for uniformed National Guardsmen to post heavy artillery facing outward from drive-in premises in case the Beast tried a forced entry. Did Paige have kinfolk in charge of the local outpost? Either way, this was extraordinary military cooperation on behalf of any movie, let alone a monster movie.

--- Evidence that a past thing was real lies in memories, writing, a photo if one or more exists. There could be no one left who experienced the Amuzu, for it left our local scene well over a hundred years ago. Not even Cinema Treasures accounts for it. North Wilkesboro, NC got by largely on one theatre, for a while two, till the Allen burned in the early sixties. I speak much of the Liberty because that’s all we afterward had, apart from a couple of drive-ins less accessible in any event. “Main Street” as what hosted the Amuzu was dirt surfaced and horse travelled, Dobbin still dominant for folk who proposed to ride rather than walk. I will guess that admission to the Amuzu was a nickel. “Storefronts” were generally twenty-five feet wide and seventy-five feet deep, OK for projection till wide screens stilled progress. What we got for “Scope” was letterbox. I'm guessing smalltown theatres were for most part storefronts, formerly any number of differing things before someone hung a sheet and began exhibiting movies. The Amuzu was undoubtedly such a place. A mere one automobile on Main Street, three carriages and/or wagons parked along front. Imagine getting film to the Amuzu. Nickelodeons in larger towns changed their program every day, some twice or more between sun up and down. Such was public appetite for fresh attractions. To swap with neighboring communities was a haul for Amuzu management oft-dependent on hoss-back delivery. Had the Amuzu once been a vaudeville parlor? I’ll never know.

SPEAKING OF BOMBS AWAY … OR NOT SPEAKING OF THEM --- Ads must make clear product they sell or go begging. Who buys tickets for an unknown quantity? And yet The Beginning or the End was smallpox as some showmen saw it. Mislead or evade was seller option, no matter if experienced patronage could smell a ruse from far down the block. The Beginning or the End was an expensive venture that went down in flames, $2.6 million in negative cost that lost $1.5 million for Metro in 1947. How much did we even want to know about the atomic bomb and how it came to be? Let the secret remain a secret, thought many. Such content was … well, radioactive to business, The Beginning or the End being cards a marketplace was dealt, management who could make it pay a colossus to colleagues. Note “Fearless Youngsters Courageously Laughing in the Teeth of a Dread, Dangerous Evil.” Imagine teeth of dread the copywriter felt upon receipt of this assignment. Show veterans learned lots about loss now that a wartime boom was passed. For licks they took off The Beginning or the End, there would maybe come The Hucksters a following week. No pain was permanent, though it seemed so with each postwar year yielding less gain, less hope of numbers like an industry once knew. Movies were for fun and escape, not confrontation with horror that was nuclear power. A smiling Audrey Totter was but faint relief from that. The Beginning or the End was warn bell against more along atomic line, yet MGM returned to the topic, profitably so, in 1952's Above and Beyond, a more commercial mix of star appeal, top secrecy, and payoff that was drop over Japan targets, a spectacle audiences had enough curiosity about to support a recreation of the true event.
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