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Thursday, July 20, 2017

An RKO Cast Talks Things Out

Trouble Among Privileged in Dangerous Corner (1934)

Disgrace, suicide, maybe murder, dredged from beneath upper-crust for an RKO cocktail hour that, surprisingly for me, gripped all the way to a low-key finish. There is such thing as saying too much where silence will serve better, the theme (and a good one) of this 66 minute exchange where questions probe ever deeper and confessions are drawn from party guests better off living with their illusions. There's always hint of real life in even silliest old films, here being occasion where curiosity kills a roomful of cats. Dangerous Corner was based on a J.B. Priestly play, he of The Old Dark House fame; according to Wm. K. Everson notes, there wouldn't be another Priestly adaptation after this one (does that still hold true?). Players are equal to heavy dialogue lift, Conrad Nagel particularly good, with Melvyn Douglas making early and vivid impression. You'd barely know it from the title and luxury settings, but Dangerous Corner is about the publishing business, and effort to keep the firm in question from "going smash," that term oft-used in wake of the Crash. Unfairly tagged as "teacup drama," Dangerous Corner rises above convention to become a real sleeper of its kind. Not yet at Warner Archive, but shows up on TCM occasionally.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Their First Starring Feature ...

A Longer Pardon Us (1931), But Is It Better?

A Laurel and Hardy feature (and first to star them) that's fifteen minutes longer than when new. Randy Skretvedt tells the whole story in his fabulous new edition of Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind The Movies. I watched an I-Tunes stream after reading his chapter on Pardon Us. Added sections help/hinder in equal measure. Situations are fleshed out, seem less choppy than before, but a chase and fire finish ported over from the Spanish version, with English dubbed over foreign speech, has more curio than entertainment value, as if this expanded Pardon Us was more for committed L&H followers than general viewership. Question becomes, who watches today beyond the L&H fraternity? TCM plays the team, but in no organized fashion. A weekly program would seem a natural, but so far nothing, despite their leasing the package for years now. Still, it's a kick having fresh L&H footage on deck, even as the briefer Pardon Us goes way of extinction, old cassettes or 16mm a presumed only way to revisit that version now, but who'll go looking for it?

Stan Laurel didn't think much of features as showcase for the team. He was also on record against sound as opposed to silent shorts. To an end of days, Stan felt silence was purest format for Laurel and Hardy. Would his fans agree? I haven't given it much thought, but will admit to enjoying their shorts more than features, though not silence to talk. What frustrated Laurel was loss of universal language the early ones spoke through titles that could be freely translated to whatever language needed. Talkies had to have been a pain by comparison, especially when multiple takes were compelled by versions specific to foreign territories. Pardon Us was recorded in five languages, according to Laurel's 1930 reply to a fan letter. That's native English plus four, from which complication one can imagine. No wonder Stan longed for simpler days of silence. Those foreign versions paid off royally in terms of team popularity outside the US. I had a Spanish teacher in high school who was raised in Cuba, got run out in wake of Castro's revolt. I asked Mr. Ferias about Laurel and Hardy, and he remembered every one of their features, saw them repeatedly through the years, several right up to leaving Havana in the late 50's. All this makes me ask if more Spanish language versions survive to this day in Cuba. Has inquiry been made, or does bureaucracy forbid proper search?

Stan Laurel was also in agreement with critics that gave L&H features a pan, but who'd argue with success? Hal Roach was wise to put the boys in multiple reels, short format given less air to breathe as double-features muscled onto bills. Pardon Us is a hodgepodge, but it's pure L&H, them motivating all of action minus burden of subplots and dullish support players, a bane upon later long ones they'd do. Laurel and Hardy were far and away the most popular comics doing short subjects in the early 30's, others having gone over to features before sound came in. The longer form was surely addressed as possibility from the moment L&H spoke on screen. Could there have been shorts before Pardon Us that they considered expanding into a feature? Subject matter of this one does lend itself to added content, though it couldn't have been easy to dream up ways of padding it beyond originally intended two reels. Laurel felt Pardon Us lacked story enough to sustain an hour's footage, and Roach went forward on production without distributor MGM's OK for release, a risk, as they would have been within rights to turn Pardon Us down. Question he likely put to the mirror, What sane company would reject a Laurel and Hardy feature?, especially in peak period that was 1930-31, season when Pardon Us was produced and awaiting release.

Don't know how Laurel and Hardy circulated elsewhere, but we had their shorts non-stop on NC stations, the features far less so. My conception of Pardon Us was based on stills in the L&H books I had, and TV's twenty-five minute chop-down known as Whatta Stir!, which starts halfway into the feature and clunks along to abrupt finish. We get the jailbreak, Stan/Babe as cotton-pickers, then the last reel riot. None of remainder, including the schoolroom with James Finlayson, a dentist office, opener stuff at the hops store, was anywhere to be seen. Stan Laurel spoke in retirement of their films being mutilated, and right he was --- all the Roach features, save Babes In Toyland, were gelded to twenty-thirty minutes for inclusion to the syndicated shorts package. I'd peruse Blackhawk catalogues and dream of seeing them complete. Two-reelers on 8/16mm came hard enough at graduating price scale --- $12 or $13 for silents, twice that for talkies, assuming you had the machine to run them on (ever see an 8mm magnetic sound projector for sale in a retail store? I didn't). Features seemed distant as the moon. My first was an "answer print" of Way Out West for $59.98 in 1971, a by-far most I'd given for any 8mm print. Now we can have that plus nine other features, along with all their talkie shorts, in a DVD box set for less than $70, in far better quality and minus aggravation of threading. Why then, was it so much a greater thrill to receive and enjoy that 8mm print?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Documentaries Worth Seeking Out ...

A Last Round-Up Of RKO

My nominee for best of the studio documentaries is Hollywood The Golden Years: The RKO Story, done by the BBC in 1987 and spread over six hour-long episodes. Not many US stations played it. I had to cadge the set on VHS from a friend in Ohio. Like so much of oral history, The RKO Story has disappeared into cracks of time. Thirty years have gone by, after all. Like with Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood series, there would be a devil’s own struggle clearing excerpts, these rights having expired since 1987. What passed for visual aid then look hopeless today beside digital rebirth of RKO’s best. Looking at cloudy clips in The RKO Story makes us wonder why viewers would bother seeking out the features if they looked no better than this. Glance back to ’87 recalls RKO’s surfacing for a first time uninterrupted on satellite broadcast. That was heyday of AMC when it was known accurately as American Movie Classics, much of their schedule revolved around the familiar beeping tower. These runs were for me an awakening. Gone were most C&C logos that were stain on 16mm syndicated prints. We got the tower back plus new transfers in the bargain. From current HD perspective this seems primitive still, but progress, if slow, has been steady. When I compare highlights of King Kong from The RKO Story with superb quality we now have on Blu-Ray, the difference is startling.

Where The RKO Story has us beat, decisively, is then-access to surviving personnel from the legendary lot, faces and voices to tell first-hand what work was like from RKO’s inception. Gathering all these from fabled past makes The RKO Story a historic document to be treasured. It should be seen and seen again by everyone with an interest in movies past. I had not looked at the six since they were new, and so forgot how riveting all were. Edward Asner is host and narrator. He speaks from the very archive where RKO records were then-stored, pulling original documents from file drawers to illustrate points. This alone lends gravitas to the programs, along with Vernon Harbin, guardian of the archive, as documentary consultant. He had been with RKO from early on, taking an interest in the company’s history and seeing to its preservation. What we know of RKO may be attributed to his lifelong stewardship, plus research and writings by Richard Jewell, who had access to the files, and whose two volume chronicle of RKO is indispensable.

A highlight among many in The RKO Story is its second episode focused on the Astaire-Rogers musicals. Everyone relevant is there, that is of ones alive in the mid-80's, which fortunately included Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, choreographer Hermes Pan, producer Pandro Berman, even several of art director staff, plus writers. Never was coverage of these films so alive. They had passed into American folklore by this time, and that's told to Astaire who reassures us that object at the time was simply to "make a buck." Narrator Asner adds that Fred did, and to tune of percentage of RKO receipts once the series caught on. We are guided through dance numbers as grinding ordeal, weeks of rehearsals, torturous route to a finish thanks to snafus of equipment or performance. Astaire says he was never really satisfied with work he did, couldn't bear to watch end result on film, even years later when he'd come upon past effort. This is all pretty generally known, but there's impact at hearing Fred at advanced age commenting on specifics that are then illustrated by clips. Same with Rogers, who remembers dresses from fifty years before and how they kinked up shooting progress. Having Berman aboard means we get dollar-cent reality of the A-R's and why they couldn't last forever. The series would in the end be simply played out. The RKO Story is at You Tube. Catch it if you can.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Best Of Hart Has Never Looked Better

1919 Looks a Hundred Years Better with Wagon Tracks

Ring out news --- Bill Hart on Blu-Ray! Never thought I'd see the day, but here it is, courtesy Olive Films, and result is swell. Wagon Tracks looks last week shot, the way you dream all silents might register if only they'd been better protected. So are over 90% really lost? Painful to ponder, but after all, most of antiquity is gone, looted, unaccounted for. But think, once upon long-ago time, all the Harts looked like Wagon Tracks, better in fact what with nitrate projection. Viewers then saw beauty we never will. Few times I saw nitrate projected was like stepping into a woodcut. At moments of Wagon Tracks, though, I felt I might do it again. Blu-Ray reclaims every tear Bill shed for big emotional scenes done here, him walking plank of a kid brother lost to crooked cards and back-shooters. Killing is by all appearance done by winsome Jane Novak, though Hart smells fish. A "good" woman just couldn't commit such act. He knows, and will prove, her no-good gambler brother and snaky fiancée in back of the deed. How Bill unmasks them is stops-out application of Hart justice as fans expect from this hardest-bitten apostle of frontier realism.

Bill Uses Tried-True March and Thirst Method To Force a Murder Confession
But how real was Hart's west? Better to never mind that and just enjoy. Idea most of time was to lay moral dilemmas on Bill and let him sort out which loyalty to keep, which unworthy object to discard. Hart went swift as judge/jury, more so than moderns are comfortable with at times, which of course, is glory of work he did that we can still access. The Wagon Tracks finish is corkscrewed with punish of sins and sacrifice set at alter of love. It's all so precise that a slight misstep could bring the whole thing a cropper and see all of cast roasted over Indian fire. How careful-calibrated were Hart shows ... you come away satisfied that right is done, universal themes applied as they were to all media that told tales of the sweep westward. This was how a public wanted myths, and Wagon Tracks, like all of Hart, got it done to their liking. Even after a century, would we have it any other way?  I could hope Olive sells five thousand units of Wagon Tracks, but .... And yet Bill's one that even the uninitiated often take shine to. His persona is fresh wind against current-day Code so strictly applied.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

A James Bond Race For Space

When 007 Wanted To Be Star Wars

Comeback success of James Bond with The Spy Who Loved Me opened faucet of spending on the next one, which became the biggest of JB's in terms of gross, but a limp rag, if not insulting, to fans optimistic for future of the series. What tripped Moonraker was 007 again pandering to fads of the moment. This hadn't been an issue when Sean Connery played the agent; was it felt that Roger Moore needed all of help he could get? He'd been buttressed by comic cameos that weighed down from a start: Hillbilly J.W. Pepper smelling up Live and Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun, followed now by lethal Jaws enacting funny business (and with a girlfriend) in Moonraker. What maybe got cheap laughs in 1979 doesn't wear well now, nor is there Bondmaniac regard for sci-fi elements imposed on a format that Star Wars should have been paying homage to.

There was serious attempt to draft James Mason into villainy's role. Of course, he would have helped, most anyone a potential improvement on Michael Lonsdale's listless "Drax." Great actors just couldn't be persuaded to oppose James Bond. Was there understanding and agreement that such work was beneath them? I came away resentful from the dog Moonraker seemed in first-run. It plays better as I've had less emotion vested in the series. Moonraker was the first time a stunt opening (multiple falls from a plane) seemed truly outlandish, but with real people tumbling out as opposed to process or later-to-come CGI, you have to figure it could happen; known tag-line, You Will Believe A Man Can Fly, might have applied better here than to 1978's Superman where it was first used.

Roger Moore had settled into likeable complacency by this time, a room temperature Bond to demonstrate how the character might register had he begun, and remained, on television (where in fact, 007 was introduced, in 1954's tube-adapt of Casino Royale). There's never a point in pitting Bonds against one another. I've liked them all, as each represents nicely the era in which he thrived. Moore may have been a least dynamic, but seldom gave offense, coming across an affable chap, which I'm given to understand was Sir Roger's offscreen posture as well. Of all Bonds, he seemed to have embraced the character best (so far as look-backs), and always with good humor. Is it safe to say that Roger Moore had a happiest personal experience being Bond?

Monday, July 03, 2017

When Connery Became The Outlaw Bond

Never Say Never Again (1983) Takes On Embedded 007

Sean Connery came back in 1983 to show everybody what a real James Bond looked like. Roger Moore's jokes had gotten stale, and besides, he'd always seemed too civilized for the part. Moore comes off still as a 70's conception of 007, not a good thing with the 70's itself a largely discredited decade. Funny part was Connery having to encore in what was essentially an "outlaw" James Bond movie, Never Say Never produced by malcontent cast-off from the Eon team Kevin McClory, still sore over that and getting even by exercising remake rights he had in Thunderball. Reading court reports of the battle is a kick; these were cats and dogs warring over bounty that was Bond. It looked for awhile as if Never Say Never would go head-to-head against latest-with-Moore Octopussy, but that got averted when delays pushed Connery's return back a few months, allowing Octopussy to collect its pile first.

The movie must have seemed like an afterthought, but it got made. Connery trimmed down and had a new rug installed. I think he looks great in it now, but that's because I've aged along with Never Say Never Again. In 1983, the show seemed drab, mostly because it didn't bear signatures of legit entries (gun-barrel opening, John Barry music, distinctive main titles). Eon lawyers watched close to make sure this was indeed Thunderball remade, so there's no mistaking the thing having been done before, though only charter Bond clubbers would really notice. Connery's antipathy toward the Saltzman/Broccoli lot, plus a packet of money, led to participation here, McClory allowing his creative input as well. Connery always felt his old employers treated him like a stud puppet. Never Say Never Again looks like it ran short of cash just ahead of the third act, as underwater stuff is perfunctory and nowhere near the first Thunderball's. Bad girls had meanwhile become badder over intervening time, Barbara Carrera a psychotic update on Luciana Paluzzi. In some ways, it was hard to believe that only eighteen years had passed between the two pics.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

New 007 For The 80's

Dalton Introduces a Sullen and Go-Rogue Bond

It became post-Roger Moore fashionable to anger up James Bond, the seek after "harder edge" meant to get us back to departed spirit of Ian Fleming and danger of Sean Connery. Neither of these was reachable because times had changed and so, irrevocably, had the series. Biggest barrier lay in fact that Bond was himself neither new nor a novelty anymore. The only way to reboot was to recast the part, that a most reliable means of juicing boxoffice. There was always curiosity when a new 007 took the stage, then disillusionment when understudies didn't measure to Connery's fit. Roger Moore had tough times adjusting, his first two raising doubts that the format itself could continue, and George Lazenby had problematic debut, so much so as to make his first Bond a last.

Now came Timothy Dalton, a splash (but welcome?) of ill-temper and doubtful commitment to Queen and country his forebears served w/o question. Just as we had come to doubt our federal law enforcing, so had he, to a point of letting MI6 "stuff it" rather than submit to further of that organization's discipline. Dalton was celebrated for stage background and dabs of Shakespeare to make playing of a pulp hero duck soup. He was good, at least to my mind, but there are ones who'd disagree --- one friend not normally misguided says he'd not watch Dalton's Bond again on a bet. Others complained that he lacked "humor," as if we'd not had surfeit of that over seven servings of Roger Moore. In fact, it was refreshing to see Bond taken seriously again, assuming that was possible after twenty-five years of increasingly degraded merchandise.

The Living Daylights' story was cold-warrish, never my favorite device, especially as I always found those hardest to follow, possibly due to my habit of not giving proper attention to 007 narratives. Also it's long, as in three or four endings like action movies today. Bond Girl rush was '87-reduced thanks to the AIDS scare; that aspect got as much press as Dalton and the pic itself. We didn't realize it then, but The Living Daylights would be John Barry's final turn at composing for the series. For me, he makes the difference as to re-watching Bonds, or not. Something like For Your Eyes Only, with Bill Conti styling, amounts to foul in the punch bowl for at least this viewer. We wouldn't be long after The Living Daylights losing faces and background participants who'd been there since a start --- it had been a quarter-century, after all --- and some had already moved on. Comforting continuity of this series couldn't last forever, but at least it would stay recognizable for a few more years, if not decades.
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