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Monday, April 29, 2024

Precode Picks #3


Precodes: The Age of Consent, Female, What's Playing Broadway, and The Painted Veil

THE AGE OF CONSENT (1932) --- Any depict of the college experience circa 1932 is manna for me, The Age of Consent doing it with game cast of youngsters not burdened by star status nor baked-in song and patter to be highlighted were this, say, a Paramount project. Post-twenties setting, so no need for racoon coats or hip flasks, initiates to life swapping sarcasm as they learn of “free love” and other concerns revolved around Topic A. The Age of Consent is precode to extent of what drives girls and boys, none constrained by faculty advice to go slow what with temptations like Dorothy Wilson and Arline Judge, one sent by parents to get proper educated and maybe a husband, the other of working class who will put out where a young man merits such gesture. This all smacks of real life except what do I know of collegiates in 1932 but for recognizing tropes from my own long-past experience and what got observed during that not-so radically changed epoch. To most essential point, were girls on campus to book learn or snare a mate? At least two confessed to me post-graduation that parents expected both. You’d fail and waste their investment lest you brought home a diploma plus a husband. I saw a lot of friends marry right out of, or during, college. How did they work out? NSG for a most part, as ones (or twos) I can think of are on at least second wedlocks today, or single and relieved to be that way. Callow Richard Cromwell (for casting he got, we could dub him “Callow Cromwell”) gets in a pickle after one-night wing-ding with Arline, and he was supposed to be engaged to Dorothy. Seems Arline fed him hootch and hours later he couldn’t recall their act of lust, a movie device reflective of no reality I ever knew. There are indulgences simply not to be forgot mere hours later, no matter what one has to drink, or am I wrong?

The Age of Consent
schools us re slang cleverly applied to collegiate conversation never so bristling in my own experience. Were RKO scribes former campus wits as was customary case where writing was especially good? Insights to growth and maturity are supplied by Professor John Halliday, who a generation before got his sheepskin but surrendered love, thus “finish your education” is not what he’ll preach, and for this instance at least, we are told at the fade that degrees while OK are no substitute for home, family, and whatever job might be got. Was this responsible advice? Search me, as dropping out, let alone to marry, would have been unthinkable in seventies sojourn as I experienced it, unless ceremony was of shotgun nature of which not a few were observed as well. Does youth still attend institutions to learn life as opposed to what books would teach? Seems at times I was there more to show campus films than learn about poets of yore (English major), height of arrogance telling a prof not to expect me next day for necessity of drive to High Point and scoring Bride of Frankenstein on 16mm from piratical George Ashwell. “Hey, will you introduce and show it to the class next week for extra course credit?” asked Dr. Mahan, to which I wrongly concluded Everybody wins!, him happy, students too, and me maybe off the hook for Beowulf. College then was continual game of slip-slide and fool choice in priorities, Greenbriar in a sense what I’ve got to show for it, but perhaps there are worse ways to apply one’s higher learning.

FEMALE (1932) --- Ruth Chatterton acknowledges at the end of Female that “I’m only a woman,” and thereby surrenders control of the multimillion dollar automotive firm she inherited from her father to George Brent. Now that is trusting a guy beyond reason, judgment and any semblance of self-preservation. Where will they live, in her mansion customized specifically to her needs? And why should she give that up for the sake of any man, even George Brent? (the pair would wed offscreen as well) I sat long trying to figure the post-end power structure for these two. “Drake Motors” is hers, subject I suppose to stockholder will and that of a Board of Directors, but what does Brent's “Jim Thorne” bring to the party? Largest real-life category of women who should not trust men are women with money, because how do any know if it's them or the money men want? “Alison Drake” is frankly better off in executive chair with men-as-toys she can enjoy in off-hours. Why should she give in to convention that is marriage and comparative isolation that is home and hearth? I could endorse Alison’s decision were the actress playing her a tad younger, but Chatterton was past forty when she essayed Female and starry eyes for Brent or any other George is tough for alert eyes to accept. And here’s the other bugaboo … Brent was in real life twelve years Chatterton’s junior. His Thorne protests at one point that he will not be a gigolo to Alison, but methinks that’s very much how he comes off, at least to jaded eyes that are mine. Depression-wracked watchers were lots more worldly wise than I could ever hope to be, and I can’t help guessing they looked askance at all this. Female is fun despite absurdities, being sixty minutes long and pleasingly fleet. Deco trappings (her house!) is a feast for senses smitten by luxury as known by precious 30’s few. Female plays HD on TCM.

PRECODES ON THE GREAT WHITE WAY --- “Current Attractions” as in early 1932, here is trade mosaic of what was tendered to Broadway patrons when features and especially ads for them were looser than loose. I’ve long believed movies ran distinctly second to daring of ads selling them, newspapers seen more by tender eyes than product splayed upon screens during years before toothy Code took sway. Did Junior ask Dad to explain copy that read, “Temptations Never Come Singly … To a Married Man”? Did Dad lie and reply that such temptations are nothing other than too much ice cream or fudge? Rest assured Junior got to truth of matters, one way or another. My mother’s adolescence came amidst the precode era, her favorite actress Helen Twelvetrees, which means at ages fourteen, fifteen, she was going and seeing Twelvetrees vehicles, most of which were resolutely precode. Don’t let anyone tell you youth wasn’t worldly in those days, just for seeing what they did on screens if no other way. Much that is promoted by this montage is lost to us now, in whole or Code-cut part. Mata Hari, Forbidden, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were gelded for reissues and still are not put right. Mati Hari exists complete in a Euro archive but nothing has been done by present owner Warners to access it. Live acts were seasoning for features that in most cases ran less than ninety minutes so as to make room for what much of patronage was really there to see. Note nascent star and down-billed Bing Crosby sharing show time with This Reckless Age. I like how Sooky is touted as “A Picture for Grown-Ups,” and someone please step up who has seen Stepping Sisters, being one I never heard of before seeing this page. Imagine … Disney owns it now. Well, maybe we’ll finally get Stepping Sisters after it enters Public Domain in a few years.

THE PAINTED VEIL (1934) --- Garbo as restless wife of stolid cholera healer Herbert Marshall gets an itch for rakish George Brent in modern-set Hong Kong dressed by Metro to look more a real thing than if they had boated over with full cast/crew. Compare The Painted Veil with 1955’s Soldier of Fortune, latter which was done far flung and achingly authentic (many Cinemascope captures of wider-than-wide vistas), but then comes interiors back on Fox environs that barely bother about Far East flavor. Distinction of The Painted Veil lies in all sets, décor, scrims, street scenes, looking my idea at least of just right, even if they weren’t within three thousand miles of site depicted. Again … big enough studios with resource like MGM did not need to go far afield when artisans could improve on reality right at home, plus ravish their stars with lighting and affect they’d never have gotten hauling all across oceans for so-called “real thing.” Drama is effective, based on Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil released post-enforcement edict, but I’ll include it here for maintaining spirit of precode, which in this case is honesty re GG in faithless mode and reckless passion, continental sizzle intact despite new rules damping same down. Seems Herbert Marshall was cuckolded lots in movies, though closer exam reveals he was as much cuckolder as cuckoldee. I like how Garbo spills truth to him in seeming first scene where he suspects, sparing us slog of getting to a showdown. The Painted Veil saw profit. It was not until Conquest that Garbo had her first red ink bath, over a million gone with that Napoleonic wind. Like with Norma Shearer and Riptide, also 1934, Garbo and handlers tried at business as usual, but stories revolved around infidelity were fast passing their day, at least on terms precode had played them, doom to Garbo, Shearer, host of others who breached morality walls and thrived for it in past circumstance that would not come back. Companies couldn’t even get a pass to reissue scorchers such stars had done during peak lure when anything went, or at least seemed that way. What was there but decline and age the bane they would have confronted either way? Appropriate then that Garbo and Shearer would retire from films within a year of one another, neither needing the gaffe or further chase after money.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Category Called Comedy #5


CCC: A Brit Box Plus Duke and Sammy

WHISKY GALORE! (1949) --- Retitled Tight Little Island for US distribution by Universal, this was a J. Arthur Rank-enabled project of Ealing Pictures, a firm lately dedicated to froth-focus on English life, Whisky Galore! set in Scotland and shot there for authenticity. Humor was of droll sort, rather Brit sort as understood by Yanks who kept Whisky Galore! aloft at Gotham artie the Trans-Lux for a remarkable twenty-six weeks, venue a rebranded newsreel theatre and small enough to function nicely as a sure-seater. Comedy was understated enough for oversea offerings to be viewed as real-to-life by comparison with bumptious and increasingly unfunny US humor. Not a few elites shunned comedy unless brought from the Isles, question eventually down to, Is Alec Guinness in it? Not in Whisky Galore!, but spirit to ultimately become his got birth here and would wait for the star to embody it. We watch Ealings and are sometimes amused, charmed by a better few, but what was fuss that kept such a minor piece as Whisky Galore! humming for so many frames? Set-up is island folk dependent on spirits as an only recreation who find themselves fresh out until a passing ship goes aground and they discover its sole cargo is liquor. Varied types respond in ways we expect of eccentrics not of culture as strictly defined by Hollywood. Whisky Galore! seemed truant for showing how oft-earthy characters live very unlike we do, or did. Here was what made Whisky Galore! refreshing with encores a must, thus enter Guinness and others of singular sort to keep kettles cooking. Does Whisky Galore! play today? On TCM, yes, in pleasing HD, where interwoven stories boast a cast familiar to those who Brit-shop: Basil Radford, known/liked as half of the “Charters and Caldicott” team of Lady Vanishes fame, Joan Greenwood, whose part is smaller than her billing, James Robertson Justice, John Gregson (who would later drive Genevieve). Whisky Galore! enhances with hindsight, working better the more times we visit.

--- A comedy sure, but this is wartime, so there is German spying midst the frolic, and they mean deadly business where cornered. Surprise awaits the watching, for few in cottage residence are as they appear. This was barely released in America, and by Monogram yet (called Bombsight Stolen, as misleading as it was inappropriate). Cottage to Let played early television like most of Brit content substituting for Yank pics viewership preferred, but could not yet enjoy. At least that got them seen, and by a far wider audience than would have been case had they played US theatres. Afterward there was William K. Everson to champion obscurity that was Cottage to Let. His NYU class notes are a spur to watch, and happily there is You Tube rendition of Cottage to Let that looks fine, YT a rich resource for British titles. Cottage cast is rich too with names established or on upward move: Leslie Banks as a distracted arms inventor who uses 16mm projection to research but doesn’t explain why, and what heck is he doing with yards of film draped round his shoulders? Alastair Sim has a star-making part, comic and sinister by turns. There is John Mills who will surprise us in a third act, Michael Wilding early on, a lot more Brit faces well known to then, if less so now. Much of UK war seems to have been rooting out German operatives seemingly everywhere and in most benign disguise, not a few planted since the last war and toiling quietly toward success with the current scrap. And what of Huns who were Oxford educated and spoke perfectly the King’s tongue? It may have been better policy to trust nobody till victory was assured. Everson noted Hitchcockian devices and they are there, Cottage to Let more instance of influence AH exerted. Why not him as blueprint for a nation’s thrillers to come? He did a same trick stateside, the label “Hitchcockian” perhaps born in the USA, perhaps not. In fact, I’d like knowing when it was first used. Greenbriar earlier explored the “Master of Suspense” tag and when that was initially applied, but who’s to know where set upon oceans of ads, publicity from so long ago?

THIS MAN IS NEWS (1938) --- Freewheeling (for the UK) mystery-comedy after Thin Man fashion, as in married leads sharing three bottles of champagne over an evening, then brandy cocktails upon awaken next morning (but never sick nor hung over). Ever tried this? Don’t. Pace is quickened, except Brit rush through words is often a trick to decipher. UK slang was seldom adopted across water, or I presume at other Euro sites, England all the more an island unto popular cultural self. We are given that their newspapers operate at even more hysterical pitch than here and I suspect that reflects less authenticity than effort to copy and hopefully best Yanks at their own rapid-fire game. Alastair Sim as harassed editor gives plus value, pushed hard to keep pep at unreal level. What we like about the English is relax-as-a-rule the colonies got seldom from their own product, many to find that refreshing as often still do. This Man is News getting the hypo was novelty at least, Valerie Hobson at dream wife duty, Barry K. Barnes the husband, his name less US known. Powell and Loy they aren’t, but there is part of appeal, and This Man is News seems to have been a meaningful hit, enough so to provoke a sequel, This Man in Paris for 1939. Both got American release, News in 1939, Paris in 1942. US-Paramount financed and subsequently owned This Man is News, television exposure a result of latter put among features sold to syndication in 1959. It is since around on grey-label DVD, but online reviews so far are unsparing re picture-sound quality. My exposure came courtesy You Tube.

IMAGINE … MITCHELL AND PETRILLO IN PERSON! --- Don’t wish to brag, but I once met and talked with Sammy Petrillo, and probably was better off than if it were Jerry Lewis after whom Petrillo was patterned. Sammy as precocious teen teamed with Duke Mitchell, handlers figuring there was enough Martin-Lewis overlap to fill imitator purses. Hal Wallis wanted to sue Duke-Sammy, Jerry also despite initial good will (Sammy TV guesting with him). Had Mitchell and Petrillo kept clear of movies, things might have been calmer, but here was a faux team actively poaching on theatres bound to Paramount and real-thing that was Martin-Lewis, and word is, those venues that hosted the ersatz pair got spanked for doing so, as in no more Paramount product for enablers. Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla was produced by Jack Broder, reissue peddler and overall seller of whatever sold, the sort who’d tell a Wallis, or Martin-Lewis, or whoever, to go jump in available lakes. What did high-power Hollywood ever do for Jack? Stick it to them all, he figured. “The Public Is Entitled To See and Judge” says the Midway Theatre’s ad, and what a thrill to have shown up for the gala stage and screen show, only improvement upon announced bill if “Poor Bela” had come along as bonus. And don’t underestimate Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla --- it’s plenty polished pleasure, direction by William Beaudine, funny stuff from Sammy, songs by Duke. There is a DVD, Gorilla a supposed Wade Williams property. Again to Sammy at that Meadowlands show in the early nineties: He could not have been nicer, still doing stand-up with a girl partner. He even gave me a page of jokes used for his shows. It was like someone from a fifties nightclub stage had materialized at a New Jersey hotel ballroom, me older today than Sammy was then. Bless him and good fortune for our having intersected, Sammy's kind of show biz well missed and surely not coming back.

UPDATE: 4/23/2024: Dan Mercer ponders Brooklyn Gorilla and sends some neat fotos.

The Wikipedia article on Sammy Petrillo quotes Jerry Lewis' son Gary as saying that, "When Sammy and that other guy played in that gorilla movie, I remember my Dad and Dean saying 'We got to sue those guys...this is no good.'
...Whenever there was any mention of Sammy Petrillo, it was a tense moment."

There actually was a law suit against Jack Broder to prevent "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" from being released, on the ground that it had appropriated the likenesses of Martin and Lewis, hence the pictures of Duke Mitchell and Petrillo with the charming Charlita, who played a native girl in the film, cavorting outside a Manhattan court room. Mitchell said later that Broder had used him and Petrillo to provoke Lewis and Martin and their studio, Paramount Pictures, into suing him, with the idea that they would buy the movie from him and destroy it to prevent its release. If "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" had become 10,000 guitar picks, he would have been content, as long as he got paid.

It was the sort of deal some RKO Radio executives might have wanted to have made with William Randolph Hearst for "Citizen Kane." However, Broder not only wanted to get his budget back, he wanted a little more. which was where he overplayed his hand. Hal Wallis at Paramount wasn't agreeable to settling for more than the picture's budget. He didn't like Broder, he didn't like being held up, and he thought that the movie stunk and wouldn't make a dime. The talks broke down, the law suit was dropped, and Broder was forced into releasing his film after all, which predictably did no business. So, it was a sort of "Springtime for Hitler" in reverse, with the preservation of "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" its dubious outcome.

ANOTHER UPDATE - 4/26/2024:

Dear John:

For the record, and for those who have never seen the U.S. variation in ad design, here is a crummy image of the U-I New York Times opening day ad for WHISKY GALORE as "Tight Little Island" from December 25, 1949.


Monday, April 15, 2024

An 85th Anniversary Surprise Booking ...


Gone with the Wind Blew Back Last Week

A part of me is for shortening Gone with the Wind to simply Gone. And yet there are pockets that care, 116 of them showing up for a Fathom Events run this past week, my local six-plex using GWTW for one matinee (Sunday) and two evening runs (Monday, then Wednesday). Admission was $10, which means they collected $1160 total. That may have been more than Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire or Kung Fu Panda 4 took for comparable play. I dealt myself in for Sunday afternoon, time served one hour, as here is where audible reaction most occurs, at least that was case on distant occasions when me and audiences intersected. Back then prints were bad, good, worn, intact … one never knew. This time GWTW was digital and that translates more/less to idiot proof, so worry not of wrong ratio or faded color. This looked and sounded OK if dimmer, though I’d guess audiences by now are resigned to that. GWTW ran in a smaller room to seat 125, so Sunday’s 55 seemed a crowd. Here was chance to see what Rhett and Scarlett could do with 2024 viewership. Obviously none came on casual impulse … not to a four-hour film, most having seen GWTW I expect, never on a big screen perhaps, as was case with the lady who cuts my hair who pledged weeks ago not to miss her all-time favorite movie “as it was meant to be seen.” I had ears up for response to specific scenes well recalled for how each played a half-century back. Would they go same directions again? Answer was yes, with a few surprising no’s.

Gone with the Wind
was pondered last at Greenbriar in 2010. Many comments were posted, these worth a latter look after fourteen years elapsed. I tried this time to put myself in the place of today-folk watching a 1939 release. Were any there who had never seen GWTW? If so, they were in for something unlike all that is modern filmmaking, and more so, storytelling. Is any current film so heavily scored? I’d like to think someone among the uninitiated might “discover” the music and want more of same sort, or is that too wishful thinking? Love for lush accompany might be too high a hill for anyone young (even old) to climb, for didn’t movies abandon classical/romantic models by the sixties, certainly the seventies? I felt keenly Wind's age when Thomas Mitchell did his Tara speech and the camera rolled back for a majesty take. When was this sort of thing last attempted? Gone with the Wind defines narrative-driven, bearing in mind this isn’t something moderns necessarily want, so does GWTW suffer for its discipline and careful construction? Characters are dense and piled high. Could you scroll, text, as so many do, and still keep up? Lots insist a movie permit all this, which may be why coherence matters so much less now. No film today is remotely like Gone with the Wind, whereas on 1967-68 occasion for a major reissue, there were still features that harked back, at least tentatively, to the epic original. Imitators stepped boldly forward just ten years before, Raintree County and lately mentioned Band of Angels. I wasn’t nervous watching GWTW for not being responsible for how it would be received, my days for bringing anything vintage before current lookers happily and mercifully passed.

Gone with the Wind
was for years a gateway drug to old film addiction. Exposure enough, repeated enough, made a rest of the Classic Era simpler to access, easier to enjoy. How possible was it to sit a civilian down for black-and-white recital by faces all of which were unfamiliar? During the sixties-seventies at least, more people saw GWTW than any way-past title save The Wizard of Oz, opportunity arising to widen their acquaintance with at least the four principals from Wind: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, and Olivia DeHavilland. Gable as lure brought groups of sorority girls to my 1975 collegiate run of Honky Tonk, all of them there for knowing him as Rhett Butler. My sister long ago sat through televised Intermezzo with me after recognizing Leslie Howard, and how many tolerated Errol Flynn pictures I showed at school for familiar face Olivia DeHavilland showing up in them? Clark Gable acknowledged in later years that Gone with the Wind was what primarily kept his name alive and enabled public forgiveness for weaker movies he had done. Ever asked someone who liked GWTW if they’d seen anything else with one of its stars? Had they not, chances are they might be willing to. Wish I could have polled Wind’s exiting audience last week, me as modern-day Johnny Grant with Rock, Pretty Baby’s crowd. As it is, my stay was less than whole of runtime, truth of matter being I’m hard pressed to sit among an audience that long. Comfort of home has become too comfortable. When Blu-Ray looks hands down better than anything they can project upon public screens … well, that’s progress of a sort I suppose, but are we richer for it? Me for the door once data was gathered.

Query to all: Was Gone with the Wind the only Clark Gable starring feature where he did not end up with the girl? Did Leslie Howard really sacrifice himself so the Germans would not realize the Brits had broken their code? Had Vivien Leigh’s bipolar condition become a handicap by the time she played Scarlett, and if not then, when? I knew a collector named Herb Bridges who lived in Atlanta and had the largest GWTW stash of anyone under one roof. We visited him once and I got to hold the green Paris hat that Rhett brought Scarlett. Also went to a high school basketball gym where the Scarlett portrait hung, and you could still see a dent where Rhett threw his glass against it. Pleased to report 2024’s audience laughed at same spots they had before, the biggest when Aunt Pitty fainted at the bazaar, a most appreciative when Rhett says “And you, Mrs. Hamilton, I know just how much that meant to you.” Suppose Selznick penned that line? It could have been any of a dozen credited, or not, scribes. Either way, it's deathless. Most interesting and unexpected was the viewing 55’s non-reaction at Rand Brooks’ proposal to Scarlett, specifically his skipping away after her acceptance for “Mr. O’Hara, Mr. O’Hara!” Later when we’re shown a letter from the War Department informing Scarlett of Charles’ death wherein Measles is listed as the cause, audiences of my past tittered or laughed outright once eyes scrolled to the bottom, but this time, and for a first time I’ve experienced, there was stillness. Do present-day neighbors feel a greater compassion for Charles Hamilton than crueler counterparts I grew up among? What a difference fifty years makes. Ann recalls patronage stood up the street and around our local bank’s corner to see a Sunday matinee for Gone with the Wind at the Liberty in 1972. Comparing this with the 55 I saw it with seems a considerable drop down, but saints be praised for mere fact Gone with the Wind was shown theatrically, it among oldies I’d least expect to turn up in this or any present year.

Monday, April 08, 2024

Stills That Speak #4


STS: John Barrymore as Richard, Sister Ethel, Handsy Gable, plus Bogie and Flynn

JOHN BARRYMORE DOING SHAKESPEARE --- The Show of Shows hindsights as woofing dog among studio revues, lice upon 1929 schedules, but wanted by a public curious to hear and not just see stars. Barrymore among these was known for declamation of Bard words (re stage triumph as Hamlet), so who was more an object of aural yearning? He parts a curtain in formal attire to announce recital as Richard III that we’ll experience just like it was Broadway and we paid four dollars and up for a seat. This was heady prospect, as it conferred bragging rights for all bearing witness to Barrymore with his voice. He was great before as romantic lead for Warners, but those were silent, and here was art as opposed to artifice of before. Jack in his intro makes prospect of sound ... sound fun, quipping about Richard killing on a scale like “Al Caponie,” name mispronounced by JB to humor effect. The slot goes seven minutes, enough of Shakespeare for most palates, a rendition of Richard fit snugly on vaudeville terms. In fact, WB could have released the Barrymore segment as one of their “Vitaphone Varieties,” one-reel an ideal host to Shakespeare’s great enactor. Jack gives it the whole hog ---- not sure how his Richard would play to modern standards, but for JB of former Jekyll-Hyde and future Svengali, it does nicely. Barrymore never had it so good as in 1929. He was happy-married to Dolores Costello, made buckets of money off Warners and independent vehicles for United Artists, plus there was a mansion lately secured which was but few mile drive from WB stages where he for most part toiled. If but Jack could tame substance demons, but his oyster was one from which he spat out all of pearls. As for Show of Show’s forecast of more “serious” performing by Barrymore, there was a Hamlet screen-test to come, not for WB, but in color, a surviving glimpse to what might have been (but who, or how many, would have paid ways in to watch it?). What we’d get of Barrymore doing Shakespeare was recordings, radio, parts in and of movies (1936 Romeo and Juliet support, deeper in decline but still effective). His Show of Shows segment is on You Tube.

ETHEL GOT OLD BUT ONLY ON SCREENS --- I always figured Ethel Barrymore for crone support in things like The Spiral Staircase, Portrait of Jennie, and Deadline USA, but wow, look at her in youth. They say she was a stage world’s most stunning, and a best of actresses in the bargain, that last in evidence of work for movies, Ethel getting gravy both stage and screen offered via perform through apex eras of both. She even did vaudeville after anoint as First Lady of legit, but being pragmatic and liking money, she took a playlet on the road and got richer in variety than she or anyone could hope for staying with prestige work. There are plenty anecdotes of Ethel being plain-folks and appreciative of what made a good dog act, never too stuck up to be her vaude self midst down market artists higher up in mass estimation than Broadway dwellers could ever hope to be. Ethel wrote a book, she pretty much had to for everyone expecting it … in fact, there were several tomes, her nothing if not beloved for wise old women she’d essay for films. Watch Ethel with Bogey/Bogie in Deadline USA and see how he defers in long dialogue they share. Surely the by-comparison neophyte thrilled to having dialogue (lots) with what must have been an acting idol from his youth. Audiences unto the fifties (Deadline USA was 1952) could appreciate old-timer encores where it was plain here was their twilight and they'd not sustain much longer. Not only great personages from vanished stage, but also faces weathered but still recognizable from dawn of movies, like a Francis X. Bushman peeping from behind near-extra ranks. So the public had a short memory? Not where those they loved most mattered still, Ethel Barrymore as good an instance of this as any.

MIND THOSE HANDS, GABLE --- I read where the King got $300K for doing Band of Angels. Talk about toil for strictly cash. He flew east for locations, but most of 125 minutes stank of sound stages. Band of Angels is bad and good after spectacular fashion, mostly bad. It was figured to evoke Gone With the Wind, and so was Raintree County of soon arrival, but Gable as former slave trader and rake of the seas was even more distant memory than Rhett Butler’s for blockade runner days. I chased Band of Angels along syndicated route just to watch, more hear, Gable speeches that run on, but what verve he gives them. Would have been great to see him head-to-head with Tracy for Inherit the Wind and let Fredric March stay home. The movie would certainly have been less a slam dunk given that casting, as we’d maybe root as much if not more for CG to score for God and make Wind less a stacked deck (imagine those Boom Town buddies together again). Gable was fine at sustained speaking, Command Decision proof to that. He liked Angels' Yvonne DeCarlo for her salty language and dirty jokes. If any film must be a “Guilty Pleasure,” let it be this. Seen the trailer for Band of Angels? The King and Yvonne being directed by Raoul Walsh take a break when Gable “notices” us looking in. He narrates from there and three minutes’ delight ensues, Band of Angels labelled “daringly unusual, boldly presented, its passions primitive,” so say Gable. Remember, this is 1958, when movies had presumably got beyond melodramas of oldest school. Not Band of Angels! There’s even Ray Teal as a mustache-twirling flesh auctioneer, and that’s before Gable enters the show. Aspects of the story are numbingly foolish, Band of Angels based on a best-seller by Robert Penn Warren, who surely did not vet treatment Warners gave it. There’d be profit from $3.9 million in worldwide rentals, not a lot, but as much perhaps as Band of Angels deserved. The still splayed here has CG bear paws mighty close to where they never went in MGM days, but this being 1958 and dawn upon Code undermine, such publicity might come as no surprise.

HITTING IT OFF FOR REAL OR JUST PRETEND? --- This is the only image I have seen of Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn together offscreen. Costumes indicate Passage to Marseille meets Uncertain Glory. The two seem affable. We’re told that Bogart and Flynn did not socialize. What could they have had in common, apart from both working at Warner Bros.? Common ground for WB oarsmen would be shared grouse toward management. Bogart probably knew that Flynn was at this point earning more. HB was lately off Casablanca, which scored hugely and won “Best Picture” besides. Flynn meanwhile was happy to be free of legal shackles, a possible active sentence no longer looming. His acquittal was handicap to heroic image burnished since stardom conferred by Captain Blood, but 1944 saw changed attitudes re rectitude players were expected to maintain, Errol’s misconduct a plus for many who felt that with a war on, we'd choose get-it-done if flawed role models more than boyish scouts preferred before. The trial in fact was a spike for Flynn’s career, just as Casablanca and then Bacall would be for Bogart. You could say both men sat here at a summit. They sure look mutually pleased with selves. Errol if he notices has maybe one puff left on the fag he’s holding. Otherwise a burnt fingertip beckons. I’m always surprised when Bogie isn’t holding a cigarette. He didn’t put them down even when posing for stills and publicity (smokes part of his persona after all). Chances are there's a cig in HB's right hand we don’t see. Did either actor consider quitting, even for a moment? Too few counseled that in the forties, but habit users aged quicker than ones without the habit. Look at poor Bette Davis. Best takeaway here is Bogart and Flynn seeming to enjoy one another’s company, and to me it looks genuine, or maybe they were better actors than even us dedicated fans realize.

Monday, April 01, 2024

Poe, Are You Avenged?


Among the One-Hundred: The Black Cat and Other Poetics

Ask anyone to recall who was the first nineteenth-century author to come to their attention and I bet most would answer Edgar Allan Poe. That certainly was the case for me. “Poe” as product promised the best, whether it be The Haunted Palace or The Masque of the Red Death at the theatre, or The Black Cat and The Raven on television at home. The fact few were strict adaptations would not matter, each having pledged to “capture the spirit of Poe,” all benefiting from pedigree the long-deceased author suggested. I seldom heard of Poe at school and have no memory of being taught him. Readings indicate the academic community ignored Poe and perhaps still do. He has apparently had more civilian admirers than professorial ones. Given choice as to one's own written legacy, wouldn’t most want the same? Seems Poe touches deepest those who seek literature not for its being endorsed by appointed authorities, but by making meaning for millions who have identified not just with Poe stories and poems, but with Poe himself. Doctor Who did a fantasy episode where Van Gogh somehow transports to the present day and is assured that he was and remains the greatest artist who ever lived. What if Edgar Allan Poe came back? Think how fans would seek him out to rain plaudits. We wish that could happen for the way this poor man suffered over a too-brief forty years (1809-1849). Not sure anyone could have helped even if they had been there and willing, as Poe was often as not his own worst enemy, and possibly that is what lures us most to him, Poe very much an “anti-author” opposing standards rigidly applied. To an era that preferred gentility, he brought kerosene. Even if Poe showed up a hundred years later, I’m not sure he would have got invites, let alone tenure, at institutions of learning.

I was drawn to Poe because he could raise the dead, gothic horror more my meat than dinosaurs or outer space. The author is, was, always, noted for scares even though most of his work went other directions. How he died (well, how did he die?) was mystery never to be solved. Darker-pitch admirers spent lives to unraveling the why, maybe the who, responsible. Mystery of Poe passing is so baffling as to suggest true deviltry at work, as in did Poe swap his soul for literary genius? Getting/watching the new Blu-ray of All That Money Can Buy started me speculating, not for a first time, if men, women too, sold themselves to Satan once upon past centuries, the more a possibility as I noted Mr. Scratch making his unholy bargain with Jabez Stone circa 1840’s, peak period of Poe, and culminating near time he exited … or was taken. Poe came across as tormented enough to barter anything for peace, or trading for capacity to pen spookier than then-spookiest stories. Suppose the devil took him for sake of a more apropoe
 curtain? Time and setting of then seems more likely for devils to be afoot and among us, but would that be less a case now? How many of us would yield without even being aware of it? Maybe reading and watching too much Edgar Allan Poe would get the job done, or binging on The Walking Dead, few realizing what damnation lays in literary, televised, or Internet wait. If any successor scribe made similar bargain, it probably was H.P. Lovecraft, his stuff sickly enough to make Poe a Dr. Suess by comparison.

Poe deliberately kept himself at distance, at least from those he didn’t much like. Don’t we all? He described one more/less enemy as “the most malignant and pertinacious of all fiends,” a libel I’d not pen on any donkey met so far in life, and how did Poe imagine his co-respondent (a hoped-for girlfriend) would know what “pertinacious” meant without at least a Google search? (for the record: “holding firmly to an opinion or course of action”). Proof again that to be educated in those days was to be really educated. Poe was handsome, at least in youth, could be charming, except to those he riled. One described his “gray, watery, and always dull eyes,” a mouth “not very well chiseled, nor very sweet,” a tongue “too large for his mouth,” with hands “singularly small, resembling bird claws,” reviews of Poe the person thus mixed, as was criticism he wrote of books, many acerbic enough to earn a host of detractors. Did the devil whisper in his ear to alienate so many as possible within forty short years? And yet lots called him “Eddy” and looked back on Poe as a right guy unfairly maligned. Movies from a silent start portrayed him as sympathetic, if tragic and doom-laden. Fox offered feature treatment that was The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, not an inapt title because he was loved, and by disparate women, including a child wife said to look like Linda Darnell (no, they didn’t say that in 1845, this merely to assert that Darnell was well cast, did her part nicely, and yes, I am a fan). Poe himself was John Shepperd, aka Shepperd Strudwick, whose only starring role this may have been. The 1944 release ran but 67 minutes, and was produced by Bryan Foy, known mostly for B’s. For quick pace over short stay Poe had, it isn’t bad. There too is a Fox-On-Demand DVD.

I have survived seeing The Black Cat for a first time by sixty years. Here is how long some of principal players lived past their own participation: Jacqueline Wells (Julie Bishop) --- 67 years, David Manners --- 64 years, and Lucille Lund --- 68 years. They lived to 87, 98, and 89, respectively. These people, for all of wisdom accumulated over combined lifetimes, must have been hard pressed to imagine what The Black Cat would come to mean to a fan base largely unborn during brief time they spent on a project likely unimportant to them in 1934. To be sought out by an admirer so many decades hence surely left each nonplussed, for weren’t there pursuits more constructive than long-ago venture now obscure? One could ask a bricklayer to reflect upon steps installed a half-century ago and get similar reaction. Might this sum up David Manners when tracked down in final inning that was nursing home pancakes and vain hope he’ll enjoy them unmolested? Lucille Lund worked also in westerns that stood tall with former boys now old men, some among these wondering too about Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, The Black Cat one more quiver in her ten dollars per autograph bow, but imagine standing before this crowned head of cinema, never mind her part in The Black Cat being small and getting paid but pittance for performing it. Could Ms. Lund have forecast such annuity? As 2006 told, I wrote Jacqueline Wells a fan letter and she replied twelve years later. I realize now what a short time that seemed at such venerable age as hers. Ms. Wells aka Julie Bishop writing four pages to an utter stranger who revered her for The Black Cat and other things (many other things … see IMDB credits) meant little more to Jacqueline/Julie than tip for a waiter, bootblack, or fan long ago when she was active, but for me, this was a gift to keep giving with each re-watch of The Black Cat.

A complaint about Poe, at least among academics, was that his poetry did not fit convention, as in being easily taught.  Movie critics were as hard on The Black Cat. As so often a case, they laid sarcasm to what was not fully understood, let alone appreciated. Reviews from 1934 suggest The Black Cat was too good for at least its reviewing audience. Even among Universal horrors, this was an outlier. Experts say it was snuck through production while Carl Laemmle Sr. was visiting Europe, this under category of believing a thing because I want to believe it. Director Edgar Ulmer was a sort of Poe for life traveled over plenty rocks in the road. The Black Cat suffers, as do all Hollywood films, for being merchandise first, and art a distant second. Why isn’t literature in such category? They were printed and sold too, with expectation of earning revenue. Poe would exclaim to friends about a new story or poem that would finally put him over, prosperity right around a corner. That never happened in part because no sooner would writers write than others would steal. Poe ruminated over copyrights with Charles Dickens when a couple of times they met. Author ownership was also a burning topic of The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe. Was Fox editorializing on their own behalf as well as departed Poe's? The Black Cat is modern-set, though you’d hardly know it by a yarn so unearthly. Was credited story and screenplay man Peter Ruric channeling Poe when he dreamed up The Black Cat? --- because he surely “captured the spirit” as so many others would attempt/claim to do. Ruric is another of mystery figures who kept to his quill and shunned public notice, him writing hardboiled for “Black Mask” and whatever else covered rent. Edgar Ulmer kept too his own counsel. You could call The Black Cat plenty mysterioso just for these plus that most up front of enigmas, Bela Lugosi. I knew there was something wildly singular about The Black Cat from first encounter in 1964.

Poe as mad himself stoked fire come 1935 with The Raven’s Lugosi a crazed surgeon obsessed by works of he who a century past was adjudged by enemies to be nuts, or absinthe-sodden. Who but Bela to exemplify demented Poe? “Dr. Richard Vollin” is a genius at brain work, but doctor, heal thyself, as he’s over the full moon for Irene Ware after her dance in tribute to Poe, this to make anyone already insane the more so. Such was Lugosi’s dish, Karloff along as more/less brute assist. Did BK notice back seat he sat? The whole of Universal being a “toilet,” as he confided to co-player Ian Wolfe, may have resolved Karloff to let it go so long as checks cleared. “It’s more than a hobby” murmurs Vollin re torture instruments he basement-keeps, but honestly, what growing boy wouldn’t like an operating pit/pendulum to deal with insolent playmates? Vollin is to his credit a fun host, supplying an impressive tabletop horse race game to amuse guests. Did he rent that for the evening, or was it offshoot of his Poe collection? Ego-driven Vollin declares “I am a law unto myself,” which I guess all of us would like to be, him wading again into the OR despite having been years at research and away from scalpels. “A doctor is fascinated by death and pain,” he declares, and based on my own of-late medical experiences, I suspect he was onto something. Swapping flatteries with “Jean Thatcher” (Ware), Vollin jumps the gun by frankly declaring himself “a God with the taint of human emotion.” Lugosi never had such baroque dialogue. In fact, they are more like speeches one best hears in stupefied awe. Ever wrapped a debate with “I tear torture out of myself by torturing you”? Lovers Lester Matthews and Jean/Irene are locked in a room which in its entirety lowers to basement level, after which walls close in to crush trapped quarry, except here the crushee turns out to be … but why spoil it. Invest your own 61 minutes and know peerless, if not strictly Poe, joy that is The Raven.

Here was a conceit worth exploring: Edgar Allan Poe as a real-life solver of mysteries and to the rescue of maidenhood in distress. Thing is, all this might have happened. Again, we could hope for it to have happened. The Man With a Cloak was Metro dematasse to follow 1951  "A" helpings, careful application of $881K in negative costs to tell B/W story (or fact?) of Poe sensing sinister doings in a New York brownstone and his effort to see that habitants don’t poison elder Louis Calhern and dispossess visiting Leslie Caron. So why shouldn’t Poe do-good when not writing or being haunted by dipso desires and constant quest for elusive work? We like best authors who are proactive, at least those portrayed in movies. Joseph Cotten as Poe was a good pick, the star sort of revisiting his Gaslight character but also being sensitive Joe as in Portrait of Jennie, over-indulging Joe of The Third Man. Remarkable how deep was kit that finer actors drew from during the Classic Era. I believed in Cotten as “Dupin” and was pleased by last shot revealing him as Poe. Bios in fact reveal complexities enough to figure the author for infinite roles he could have played in a short life, The Man With a Cloak taking place in 1848, one year before Poe passing. Why not let him unmask perfidy and discover a lost will to put everyone’s life right? Poe pretty much invented the modern detective story, so let him be a real-life sleuth. Kindly tavern owner Jim Backus serves the stranger cuffo drinks throughout 80 minutes runtime for knowing latter's heart is in a right place, as do we … so who says Edgar Allan Poe was anything other than a stand-up hero? I like The Man With a Cloak and am sorry not enough of a 1952 public did, Cloak earning but $780K worldwide to ultimately lose $441K, this after MGM floated it, at least for Gotham engagement, as an art film. Few were fooled however, as you don’t feature Barbara Stanwyck, Joseph Cotten, and Leslie Caron in an art movie. Leo was finding out that even best-intentioned humble ones had little chance against a daily changing, if not deteriorating, marketplace.
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