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Monday, May 27, 2024

The Universal-International School of Art and Life


Thought Balloon for Kid at Lower Left: OMG, It's Really Piper Laurie!

Where Stars Below Stars Still Get To Be Stars

To be a movie star at Universal-International was to be a fake movie star, said Piper Laurie, who knew from fifties sentence served alongside forever second stringers that was youth under yoke of U-I’s contract system, last of a breed declining elsewhere in the industry. Paramount had its “Golden Circle” that would not last, MGM developing talent beyond point where this could be successfully done, and Columbia … well, Columbia had John Derek. The 50’s was faint chance to be an acting hopeful, at least an actor built from the ground up, which many of U neophytes were. From truck driver to star was myth propagated there, no myth actually, as it worked for Rock Hudson, who as Roy Fitzgerald did manual work until fame whispered in his ear plus promise of time, as much as was needed, for him to season like beef on a spit and become an actor many if not most would respect. Same for Tony Curtis, who wanted to learn, yearned to improve, and did. Audie Murphy had steppingstone of war heroism to become a western favorite, all five foot six and ferocious of him. The women were attractive (had to be) and capable, increasingly so with back-bending work and constant publicity trials. Being a star was more advertising your stardom so as to confirm being a star, or soon to be a star as asserted non-stop on radio/TV stations across the land, theatre lobbies where card tables or countertops supplied surface to sign glossy stills, these and more done at ten to one ratio of time in front of cameras doing what you imagined was the job you were signed for. No one’s conception of stardom was borne out by reality of attaining it. For nearly all there was disillusion of one sort or other, but it was a living, and did beat driving trucks.

Don't Kid with Audie On or Off Screen --- He'd Soon Kill You as Look at You

I’ve been watching a lot of Universal-International lately, much of it pleasing, all of it better in hindsight than I might have expected. Thing about U-I is how humble a shop it was, few aspiring toward grandeur, none for award or prestige. Big stars came there to slum and take percentage of what down-market vehicles drew them, support supplied by junior varsity that was contract players all in a row to earn meager checks they were at least temporarily grateful to get. Many went from astounded by luck just being there to surly/restless for eighty-hour weeks and grueling travel (again, for publicity). Like quitting a lousy job to run away and join the circus, U-I big-top was surfeit of cotton candy to become indigestible. Over-exploited talent would read of actors elsewhere who made good movies and became better actors for doing so, an outcome seemingly foreclosed to Universal players. Tony Curtis was friends with Marlon Brando, shared digs with him a while, long enough to realize Brando had a real professional’s job while Tony wore bell slippers and kissed Piper Laurie, who he disliked both for being “Piper Laurie” and ruthlessly careerist as he was. Piper had complaints too, like U-I executives stopping by her lone table at the commissary to inspect meals and say she’d got too much, them acute-aware of weight she fought throughout U tenure. So were these youngsters mere meat for processing to theatres and more, drive-ins? Yes for most part, and they knew it. Wise or lucky ones got out, moved up, at least kept working, this possible for their having names, remembered less for movies they’d been in than fact they were or had once been, “movie stars,” if faux ones. To such slander I differ however, because seeing U-I hires today is to acquire regard for labor performed competent, theirs a modesty we can admire for doing as instructed and never over-doing, this pleasing contrast to souped-up products of suddenly fashionable technique that would severely date much of young folk acting in the fifties.

Best Meets Brightest, Both Knowing Who Acting's Expert Applicator Was

To modest I’ll add humble, this assured by Universal care in casting veteran back-up to insecure up-and-comers who had less experience than looks. A John McIntire or Ernest Borginine was rod up the back for Curtis or Audie, and the perceptive among neophytes knew it. Where Rock Hudson needed expertise to perform alongside, there was Charles Coburn (Has Anybody Seen My Gal) or someone as seasoned. The girls felt lucky playing opposite Tyrone Power or James Stewart when either deigned to visit Universal, memories from Piper Laurie, Julie Adams, Lori Nelson, happiest for kind/courteous Ty or Jim who treated them as pros and insisted on first name basis throughout shoots. These were examples to aspire to, cash they collected a goal, but how was that attained by one silly pirate or harem yarn after another? Universal meant formula rigidly applied. Yes, they spent and took serious a Stewart or Power property, but where top-lining Tony and Piper (four undistinguished times), there was little but hard sell of his wavy hair and her cottage cheese enabled curves. There always was promise of bigger things ahead. Mamie Van Doren lived on such promise until she realized none would be fulfilled. When peak of accomplishment was Star In the Dust co-starring John Agar, it was time for Mamie to fold and head elsewhere. U-I youth were clubby for sharing same struggles. Rock would cuss out brass, never to their faces, but co-labor admired his pluck and knew someday he’d tell Mr. Muhl what for. Meanwhile they all took lessons in horsemanship, sword play, dance, diction, you name self-improvement route. Mamie said frankly that this was where she got what amounted to a high school education. So did Tony. He’d pose for stills in cap and gown, despite not actually earning them. That’s OK, cause there were more smarts got at U-I than any public school could teach.

Rock and Piper ... Local Greenbriar Friend Married a Woman Who Was Named After Piper

I looked at Ride a Crooked Trail (1958), Audie Murphy versus Walter Matthau, Audie underplaying to Walter’s near-Fieldsian hanging judge, an all but comic read. Matthau came of Broadway and acting lab background, a bull in china shop that was U-I. Murphy meanwhile played close to vest and never let thesping show. Lack of confidence? Maybe (his character is named “Joe Maybe”), but Audie was Zen enough to let Walter knock down furniture toward being the bigger noise, settled star Murphy more amused than chagrined by attempt at theft of scenes. He had no pretense toward acting, Audie’s subdued style and characters believable the more to my inexpert reckoning and perhaps gratification of other modern viewers. Boys at Universal all did boxer movies, thus Murphy for World in My Corner (his trainer John McIntire), Jeff Chandler as Iron Man, and Tony Curtis twice (Fists and Fury, The Square Jungle). What was to dread for distaffs was banish to a Francis or Kettle picture. One or other was always in works, and no ingenue at U-I was spared them. Mamie Van Doren thought they were poison, a very definition of utility work. Add to misery was having to do publicity with the mule, sometimes go on stage with him/her, all for $260 a week Mamie drew. Was she better off as Joan Olander of plain beginnings? Mamie fought off crude advances by U-I helmsmen like Jesse Hibbs, no Vidor or Walsh, but with busier hands. What a life, but Mamie got last laughs by outliving virtually everyone she’d come in contact with.

Mamie Wonders If Jeff Will Get Fussy Again As Was Norm

Like or loathe them, the Kettles and Francis were low risk teaching auditoriums for talent, little if nothing at stake, chance of inviting scorn nil apart from just being in a Kettle/Francis. But were other parts so much better? Mamie did Yankee Pasha with Jeff Chandler, him with a “fussy, little old lady quality.” They were all fussy, of course, worrisome option tolling like chapel bells, with always a front office ringing them, or not. Few could be sure if this month might be their last month. Certainly none wanted ticket back to obscurity they came from. Little reminders shone often through the glitter. Tony Curtis was distinctly turned off Shelly Winters as she reminded him of nagging Mama back in the Bronx, but then Mama and Schwartz brood left same Bronx to move in with Tony/Bernie soon as he had it made, so back he was plunged to old life despite being now “Tony Curtis.” Everyone on contract had some past to escape, sixteen-hour workdays faint hardship beside what they had come from. Disappointments were borne stoically. Piper Laurie worked like a Trojan for a dance segment in The Golden Horde, only to find someone doubled her for the final print. She’d cope also with Mamie trying to cop center stage for numbers they shared in Ain’t Misbehavin,’ a U-I musical MGM need never have worried about. Premieres were a balm, even when they weren’t for your own movie. The Glenn Miller Story upon Grand Open drew U’s junior league and permitted fans to ogle stars of tomorrow. Attendance of course was compulsory. Who knows, maybe someday said juniors would appear in pictures big as The Glenn Miller Story. Annoyance was going on the road to pump someone else’s product, a bigger guest name at U-I maybe who couldn’t be bothered.

Being a Star Often Meant Getting Within Smelling Distance of Francis

Classy features were rare at Universal, done often as not by director Douglas Sirk, him applying grace where melodrama needed it, the helmer a magnet after profound success that was Magnificent Obsession in 1954. Sirks were where contract youngsters could shine brightest. Rock Hudson crossed his Rubicon with Magnificent Obsession, so back he’d be for more of approximate same. Nibbling round edges were others of his former category, Gregg Palmer sensitive and whispering his lines to Barbara Rush, both willing to stand down for leads that were Hudson and freelance noise Jane Wyman. Rock was a first breakout of his class and proved U-I star creation could work with luck and earnest application. Polite players they were, none tried filching scenes from their betters in command, thus William Reynolds in All That Heaven Allows or There’s Always Tomorrow never intruding upon Wyman, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, even Rock Hudson now that latter had graduated into leads. Hudson would see to that even if Universal bosses did not. Grant Williams had his moment in Written on the Wind, withdrew into wings with hopes he’d have another if fortune smiled (it would, with The Incredible Shrinking Man). Junior Mints who’d grow into Pom Poms elsewhere would look back amused at salad (or cottage cheese) days at Universal. Burt Reynolds wove U-I anecdotes into his talk show repertoire, telling how he and Clint Eastwood got the sack on a same day for equally obscure reasons. Latter had begun lowly as jet pilot putting the kibosh on Tarantula in 1955. Who among eager class dreamed Clint would go farthest of all? U-I output apart from famed ones, like the Sirks, are hard to track, let alone see proper. Kino has released oodles on Blu-Ray while others languish on You Tube as gift from fans to fans, which is how I lately saw Running Wild, exploitation that played double with Tarantula on first-runs, reason alone to seek it out, plus Mamie Van Doren doing spirited dance to Bill Haley and Comets (recorded), Running Wild another U-I ghost awaiting resurrection on disc or streaming.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Film Noir #28


Noir: Charley Varrick, The Clouded Yellow, Collateral, and Confidence Girl

CHARLEY VARRICK (1973) --- I’m indifferent to Walter Matthau in comedy but will take him all day in something like Charley Varrick, a sunlit noir directed by Don Siegel that came/went largely unnoticed (1973), in part because, as Siegel recalled, Matthau chatting with columnists knocked the film and said the script was never any good. Siegel took this hard and blamed Matthau for commercial failure of the film. I wonder if Matthau realized how effective he was in crime/chase/police thrillers (even The Laughing Policeman, a least of them, still good because of him). Charley Varrick is terse after programmers Siegel directed when being quicker on/off screens didn’t matter so much for less expectation attached to them. 1973 could not afford such indulgence as lower budget action had to be really lower budget in order to pay. I’m thinking Peter Fonda or Warren Oates as Charley Varrick might have gotten by, but then you’d need to call the movie something like "Heist Highway" or "Money to Burn." Don Siegel’s book goes into practical problems of action staging, days wasted, location locals trying to hustle more Universal money than initially bargained for, Siegel having to get tough with them plus members of the crew that slacked or misbehaved. So what was directing, even auteur directing, but plain hard labor? Siegel used familiar and welcome faces --- I spotted Bob Steele, Tom Tully, among others. Joe Don Baker is a memorable heavy, enforcing for the Mafia, and yes, it’s referred to as the Mafia (suppose wired-into-Mob Wasserman got permission?). There is a story that Charley Varrick was conceived as hard R exploitation but was toned down when Radio City Music Hall indicated willingness to play it for Easter holidays. True or mere rumor? Excellent in all ways, and much like an R in attitude if not execution, Charley Varrick should be better known, though still there is a cult and members are enthusiastic, enough so to inspire a Region Two Blu-Ray with oodles of extras, a documentary near as long as the feature. Kino also released Charley Varrick stateside.

THE CLOUDED YELLOW (1950) --- Title refers to a species of butterfly, no help in knowing what content amounts to otherwise, and it was British besides. Columbia imported The Clouded Yellow for 1952 dates, generally on back end of duallers, and there was faint help from Variety's glowing review when they caught the suspense thriller at a London screening in November 1950. “Tense manhunt murder drama … is a solid proposition for exhibitors in any situation here. It’s big prospects in America are well above average, and the pic need not be confined to the art house trade.” Marquee strength, if any, was supplied by Jean Simmons and Trevor Howard, The Clouded Yellow sold as worthy successor to Hitchcock from long back, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, both of which it does evoke. There is pastoral setting, much chasing across locations plus Liverpool cityscape. Villainy is committed and dangerous, and there are welcome Brit faces in support, Andre Morrell, Kenneth More, others. But the show would please only if patronage could be tempted inside, and Columbia wasn’t pulling stops to make that happen. Result was mere $193K in domestic rentals. Part of trouble was UK product festooning early television, including many from the Rank Corporation, which was responsible also for The Clouded Yellow. Where it can be found on DVD, generally import discs priced rather high, The Clouded Yellow both surprises and delights, nicely up there with sleepers off the Isles that have stayed asleep too long.

COLLATERAL (2004) --- I’m for giving Michael Mann possessory credit because his films are unmistakably his own. Collateral, Heat, most of others, seem to me the work of a forever forty or so year old director with another twenty years at least in him. A surprise then to find that Mann has passed eighty, so how many more lie ahead for this highest energy talent? He spoke of how a studio system would never have worked for him as it did for “guys like Howard Hawks,” this based on fact that Mann could never do a movie and “simply walk away.” Price of this posture is too few Michael Mann movies, a misfortune visited upon his acknowledged influence, Stanley Kubrick. I’m selfish enough to regret there weren’t two or three Michael Mann pictures per each of fifty years he has worked, that after fashion of … guys like Howard Hawks. It must surely be hell to organize a project these days, “these days” gone back to before a Michael Mann got started. There tends to be a couple annums at least between each of his, like was case for Kubrick. Mann features are something like events. I assume actors consent to working with him without looking at scripts. Most were never better than with him. Tom Cruise as a cold-eyed killer seems unlikely, but Mann makes it work in Collateral. The film not film was shot digital and has a look no noir street-set had to that time (2004). Mann embraced digital early and knew he could achieve effects with the format undreamed of before. Collateral on projected 4K makes L.A. a dreamscape of streets empty when you need help, crowded when you are given chase. Mann has said the look of Collateral was ruined when 35mm prints were made from his work and botched in the doing, 2004 still in transition from celluloid to pixels. Keep in mind the resistance theatres made to 86’ing of film. Now it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to go back to it. Collateral for me is as modern as something shot yesterday, but look, the show is twenty years past and counting. It mesmerizes for what Mann has done with elements. Again as with Kubrick, I figure no one interferes with him, because as also with Kubrick, Mann’s films have shown profit, being boxoffice as to content and execution. I’m just sorry we can’t have two dozen more from him, but wait, might I have said a same thing about Clint Eastwood two decades back?, and look at him since.

CONFIDENCE GIRL (1952) --- Get this: Confidence Girl earned only $150K in domestic rentals for releasing United Artists in 1952. That’s like being invisible for whatever time it was supposed to play theatres/drive-ins. Similarity of title to others may have been to blame, or Tom Conway yet again. Writing and direction was by Andrew L. Stone, his wife in close collaboration. The Stones could tell a yarn and seldom let down their audience. Confidence Girl has bunco artists leading cops a merry chase with schemes to make The Sting seem prosaic, trickery up to and including fake mind-reads by Whitney Brooke in a stolen fur and Tom starting off in pursuit of her but turning out to be her crook confederate. Enough twists to open a champagne bottle and much of it works provided we give clemency to 80 minutes of puzzle with some pieces missing plus a “conscience” end to better do without. Conway still had suavity to spare at early fifties juncture and I believed him as a Raffles always three steps ahead of law. Stone shot cheaply against 100% real-thing backdrops. Interiors play in front of windows that overlook urban streets and that’s credible plus. Always prefer these to built stages and cheap flats the bane of most independent work. Stone used department stores, precincts, nighteries … you can take Confidence Girl for documentary and have your time if not money’s worth. Amazon plays it as part of Prime reward and I rolled a seven for watching --- much better than obscurity and bare budget would suggest. The stuff you find streaming, much of which is fresh as in never knew such existed. Noir really is a bottomless well. No wonder I’ve done these so long and am still barely into the alphabet. Must say it is the obscurest ones affording the most pleasure, perhaps because they do so unexpectedly.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Watch List for 5/13/2024


Watched: The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, The Impossible Years, One of Our Spies is Missing, and The Private War of Major Benson

THE GIRL IN THE RED VELVET SWING (1955) --- I learned from IMDB that Marilyn Monroe turned down this opportunity to play Evelyn Nesbit, object of early century scandal when her husband shot and killed Evelyn's former lover in a crowded restaurant. We’ll never know excitement all this caused (happened in 1906), but plenty oldsters who attended The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing did recall the event and subsequent trial. So how many among youth cared? Not enough apparently, because Fox’s Cinemascope outlay ($1.7 million spent) lost them a million once beans were counted. Maybe it was figured the sex would sell, but in floor length dresses that were Code contained besides? Monroe likely sensed this and reasonably said no. Joan Collins plays Nesbit as a good girl steered wrong, Ray Milland the rake who deflowers her, plus Farley Granger spurned and unbalanced with a gun. The trial can’t help but play anti-climactic, and we don’t get what ultimately became of Nesbit. She copped a credit for consultation, and maybe that’s why the character skirts are so clean.

Nesbit was dynamite looking in her teenage prime, frankly more so than Collins, and radiated steam sufficient to fill a thousand headlines. Red Velvet indicates fall of grace for the fade, Nesbit reduced to degrading variety work, though fact in real-life was her having a profitable run at vaudeville, then sing/songs for clubs far flung as Havana. There is You Tube footage of her performing there in the early thirties, a spoof of torchy tunes Evelyn knew too well from life if not art. Creepy in unplugged way, here is evidence of what happens when celebrity is too long clung to. Evelyn stayed around however, excelled at ceramics, taught them successfully, died in 1967. Book and movie Ragtime dredged her up yet again, but by then, there was no more memory of Nesbit or the killing than lore from the Boer War. So long as there are Google images however, we’ll not lose sight of passions such an extraordinary looker as Evelyn Nesbit roused in Edwardian men. Just too bad Fox didn’t have an actress on hand that could rise to her level (closest? I say Debra Paget). The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing plays HD at Vudu, also at Amazon Prime. Disney will allow it on Blu-Ray when I win the Irish Sweepstakes.

THE IMPOSSIBLE YEARS (1968) --- So far as parents were concerned, the ratings system arrived not a moment too soon, but what began with promise came a cropper when likes of The Impossible Years went out "G" labeled. That stink rose from cavern of Radio City's Music Hall, where families mistook Metro's sex farce for a Christmas package with Disney-like whimsy inside. Came the complaints from mortified Moms and Dads --- if anything merited an "M" at minimum rating, it was this smutty send-up of teen groping habits and lost virginity. The adapted-from play had been a hit, written by middle-age men (one of them Groucho's son Arthur Marx) and yes, the concept was leering and smarmy as after dinner speeching at the Friar's Club. The Impossible Years wasn't alone for getting an unlikely "G": there was Dracula Has Risen From The Grave similarly rated, eyebrows aloft as well when the Monkees' Head passed for all audiences. This would suggest liberal lean on MPAA part, and that indeed was case for these first titles submitted, but outcry would tighten screws, final outcome being nanny standard applied today, where smoking a cigarette onscreen might buy you a hard "R." To that last, Christina Farrare as teen cause of travail in The Impossible Years is seen lighting up to no objection from David Niven and Lola Albright, their problems with her about to get a lot worse as story thickens.

Niven had sure hand for comedy --- who better to fall off bridge between the generations? He's a college prof here, campus setting a retro reprise of what Jerry Lewis concocted for The Nutty Professor. It surprises us, then, to see "protesters" hauling signs after comic opera fashion, The Impossible Years safely ahead of Kent State and events that make such demonstration a scary prospect. Here it's all for laughs and kids will be kids, no more serious than Elvis and pals being hauled to hoosegow for over-exuberance in Girl Happy. There's nary mention of Vietnam or social injustice or whatever occupied real-life activists at the time. The Impossible Years would tread cautiously over establishment eggshells, this after all a bid for entire family attendance, even as individual elements alarm in hindsight --- but who knew the "Bartholomew Smuts" character, a bearded party crasher with artistic pretensions, would later remind us so of Charles Manson? It took only months for The Impossible Years to hopelessly date ... in fact, it was so before cameras began rolling. Critic duty obliged me in 1968 to pen a review for our local sheet, which to my look-back surprise gave The Impossible Years a “Grade A,” noting also that the Liberty “held it over, and pricked off a day from The Pink Jungle.” I did return that week to review The Pink Jungle, but how could it hope to surpass The Impossible Years?

ONE OF OUR SPIES IS MISSING (1966) --- Time again to cry U.N.C.L.E for paying admission to a feature cobbled from TV episodes of the spy series, a deceptive art perfected by Metro after discovery that paste-ups could gross ahead of bombs they were dropping into theatres during very bad seasons that were the mid-60's. One of Our Spies is Missing was actually a fourth fake of eight the U.N.C.L.E. team spat forth, and a first to be restricted to overseas release. An initial three had grossed well, astonishingly so in foreign playdates, so that's where effort would be concentrated. One of Our Spies is Missing had been built for $108K, which was TV's two-part episode cost plus expense of added footage and reshoots for Euro theatrical. What came back was $1.7 million in offshore rentals, better money than Metro realized on any number of clucks they had in circulation. Spies is sold on DVD by Warner Archive along with the seven other U.N.C.L.E.'s, and noteworthy is fact it crops nicely to 1.85, clear being fact they framed the show for eventual theatrical use. Challenge comes of 100 minutes doggedly done on dull MGM backlot as dressed for London or Paris. Leave them face it in 1966: One of Our Spies is Missing was a cheat in any man's language. There's an outstanding article by Craig Henderson on production/release of the film in Issue # 12 of Cinema Retro.

THE PRIVATE WAR OF MAJOR BENSON (1955) --- Released mere months before Rebel Without a Cause, but what era-book-ends these make. Youth as potential adult with maturity and discipline that implies was a dream to fast vanish once JD’s and rock-roll defined teens figured now to stir trouble. The Private War of Major Benson is set at a military academy, Charlton Heston the martinet assigned there for his own bad attitude, focus on boys of varied age from whom he’ll learn patience and humanity, stock stuff as Universal-International was so gifted at dispersing. Heston found the property, was eager to do comedy to relieve severity of ten commanding. Principal tyke is Tim Hovey, cherub star of this and other U-I’s and fated to future horrors like child stars as unfortunate. Same for Sal Mineo, here where Benson and Rebel intersected, Sal in Benson as model boy any Dad or Mom would embrace, us to wonder if any of Mineo was like this or was he altogether sad Plato of Rebel placement. So why go see The Private War of Major Benson … for Heston? He is romance-teamed with Julie Adams, as in why feature two big names to whom you must bestow percentage when contract staff does as well. Youth in addition to Hovey and Mineo amounts to faceless plus Tim Considine, a survivor and smart for being so, his future with Disney (was he “Spin” or “Marty,” or neither?), much other TV, getting smacked by George Scott as Patton, and finishing up as dispenser of fifteen-dollar autographs at Hollywood Collector Shows. No martyr to decaying culture he. The Private War of Major Benson fascinates on levels not imagined in summer 1955, a celebration at twilight of "good" boys that only Buena Vista or Pat Boone would eventually stand up for. Of movies invisible since syndication day, Benson stands tall. I’d seen it nowhere since Channel 9-Charlotte 60’s day, TCM the digger-up for a Heston night, transfer stale, not 1.85 and HD as hoped, but as with much that is vintage/obscure, let’s not ask for the moon.

Monday, May 06, 2024

Gary Cooper Crossing the Lines


War is Distinctly Not Hell in Only the Brave

Only the Brave
was progression of, also departure from, long and noble line of Civil War melodrama going back to first shots fired in 1861. Never did theatrical stages get such hypo as shooting conflict between the states, being everyone’s urgency and a most American sub-genre to so far fire footlights. Narratives dealt mainly with impact on individuals, seldom if ever focused upon larger issues, let alone reasons for the strife itself. Civil War melodrama was essentially romance set against landscape of neighbor against neighbor, often brother opposed to brother, theme at center being all of us as essential one, postwar a healing process plays sought to salve. Consider recounts over the seventy years prior to Only the Brave in 1930, variations endless. How then to freshen approach? Keene Thompson was a writer on staff at Paramount, born 1885, so he undoubtedly grew up on Civil War drama, be it lavish or done threadbare by small traveling troupes. Those born of latter half of a nineteenth century would know the format backwards, its cliches, expected bumps, and inevitable outcomes. Thompson, adaptor Agnes Brand Leahy, and scenarist Edward E. Paramore, Jr. took an essentially tired formula and upended it, Only the Brave emerging as sly spoof of whole institution that was warring between the states on pretend terms. I’ve got a feeling Only the Brave raised a lot of laughs in 1930 houses, viewership having been weaned on content done earnest and more than ready for Hollywood to give tradition a kick in the rear. We can’t appreciate Only the Brave a same way but can have fun watching what witty writing and a game cast does with material they all knew was ripe for parody.

Here was convention among many to be burlesqued: Stalwart Union officer (Gary Cooper), heartbroke by a faithless fiancée (Virginia Bruce), accepts a suicide mission because, after all, life means so little now. He’ll don Confederate uniform and carry false dispatches into Southern stronghold that is honey dew plantation occupied by belle Mary Brian and guest suitor, a jealous one, enacted by Phillips Holmes. You see, Cooper wants to be captured, the enemy misled by “concealed” orders so they will ride off en masse to assured defeat. It wasn’t necessary for director Frank Tuttle to gag up proceedings beyond obvious opportunity the set-up supplied. Viewership would have known early that here was a yarn not to take seriously, least wise not by veteran viewers of drama done good, bad, or indifferent by everyone from David Belasco, William Gillette, to school mates in ill-fit blue-gray brandishing their wooden swords. Hollywood had by 1930 poked fun at old-style board- trodding, as witness Buster Keaton in uproarious takeoff that was Spite Marriage in 1929, him as stagestruck yokel who through guile becomes a soldier extra in small town rendition of North-South dispute. It was a modern sign of sophistication to look askance upon any Civil War situation done straight, for hadn’t most spent a lifetime giving such stuff the horse laugh? This may have been at least partial reason why much of Hollywood doubted Gone With the Wind as screen prospect, for how could anyone sit still for yet more “epic” treatment of a war lost and won within countless auditoriums over what seemed infinite years?

Movies had themselves ground the conflict to as much powder. There were enough single reel silents to float a boat, or an ironclad. D.W. Griffith warmed up to The Birth of a Nation with a plethora of pocket dramas that explored many aspects of Civil warring, while live theatre stayed with the subject to what surely was exhaustion for watchers. Ground rules, if unwritten, did apply, as in drama must strike a conciliatory tone. War being long over, but scars still healing, meant we must explore that past on surface emotion terms, as in will love overcome patriotism, can a girl of the Confederacy shield her lover who is spying for the Yanks? Only the Brave had fun with the well-worn theme, not to extent of tampering with a happy ending everyone still preferred, but exposing whiskers grown on a story too oft-told. Director Tuttle, who himself had written for the stage, was a Yale man who understood convention and how to spoof it, appreciated comedy as brought to bear by Keene Thompson and helper scribes. Tuttle lived into the sixties and by that time worked less, so took occasion to pen a memoir of life behind cameras, his daughters saving the manuscript and enabling publication via Bear Manor Books in 2005. They Started Talking is first-hand account of a studio career first at silent forge, then learning process of sound and how to master it. We could wonder after reading Tuttle’s colorful recall how many former directors left life stories in attics that might yet be extant, waiting for descendants to come across them. Tuttle talked about Only the Brave in terms of comedy intended from the start. We might “get” the humor sooner had we slogged through as many Civil War dramas as folks in 1930, and yes, it does take Only the Brave a little time to reveal its farcical face, that coming I’m sure as delightful surprise for viewers in 1930, as hopefully they would today.

Gary Cooper does sly variation on his slow-talk cowpoke. Is he up to subtlety of spying, one asks? --- except that hardly matters, as this loser-at-love spy seeks to fail, even be shot, an unlikely quest, for what woman would betray Gary Cooper on romantic terms? Opener reel where Virginia Bruce swaps Coop for a “pansy” is good as any tipoff that Only the Brave will thereafter unfold in fun. Tuttle reported female co-workers’ fascination by Cooper’s “detachment” and limited way with words on set. “Where the ladies are concerned, a retreating male back seems to create an almost irresistible challenge,” said Tuttle. Seems all of femmes wanted to know from the director what was behind the charming, but “temperamentally somewhat aloof” façade. Tuttle finally in frustration told them “truth” that the star was “probably looking for a set with a bed in it, so he can lie down and take a nap,” this confirming Cooper’s reputation for being able to sleep on a tack between takes. Mary Brian was the leading lady. She would survive to recount for many what it was like to toil at Paramount, one job merging unto others like water flowing toward common reservoir. There was Brian and increasingly less others to answer queries and bear witness to an era irretrievable otherwise. Indeed, she would outlive Only the Brave castmates Cooper and Philips Holmes by forty-one and sixty-one years, respectively. Only the Brave played syndicated airwaves after late fifties TV release. Present day streaming options are nil, no Blu-Ray in sight (“too old” a likely argument against release), Only the Brave extant only on bootleg discs a dealer might tender.
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