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Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Saturday Assortment In 1959

Watching These In Company Of Hundreds

I know I'm hung up on old cartoons and comedies still playing theatres in the 50/60's (and the 70's, for that matter), but there are worse habits to embrace, and besides, the topic fascinates me ... frustrates too for having experienced too little of it during heyday. What if an enterprising showman tried this today? Would children, or grown-ups, turn up? The concept would seem foreign, I know. Too many years under the bridge. For that matter, are cartoons watched by anyone now, other than "adult collectors," as the Warner boxes say they are intended for? This April, 1959 matinee at the Grand in Steubenville, Ohio is one "the whole family will enjoy," but wouldn't racket and roaming of kids preclude fun for others? The Little Rascals and Stooges were lighting up TV nationwide by '59, both series drawing larger viewership than had followed them in theatres. Our Rascals host out of Charlotte did continuous round of Saturday appearances to sing on stage and run 35mm prints of Our Gang kept in the trunk of his car (hope those were safety prints). The Stooges were received like gods off Olympus. Mike Cline of Then Playing (who was there) said the roar upon seeing them in credits was deafening and did not die down for length of the short. Didn't matter if it was Curly, Shemp, or Joe. The Stooges were beloved any way they came.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Calling --- Who?

Bulldog Drummond Back In Postwar Business

Metro bought "all unproduced and new Bulldog Drummond yarns" (Variety) in February 1950 with intent of a series, one per year in event the first of them clicked. That was Calling Bulldog Drummond, to be produced at the company's Boreham Wood Studios during late summer 1950. MGM was thawing frozen funds by shooting seven features over the year in foreign climes. This was cash they had collected in boxoffice revenue from these countries, but couldn't take out thanks to native law requiring outlay on home ground to stimulate economy. That worked OK thanks to money going further over there than here, unions and attendant expense having caused domestic costs to soar. Biggest of oversea spenders had been King Solomon's Mines, done in England and South Africa, then more lavished on Quo Vadis, a big stimuli to Italy. Calling Bulldog Drummond was budgeted for a million, but ended up costing half again more. That was chancy for a character barely on screens since the 30's when Ronald Colman and then John Howard played him. Detective series had been dropped elsewhere, including at Metro where the Thin Man was absent since 1947. So who at Culver was champion for such dated property as Drummond?

Ads had to emphasize the "New" of Calling Bulldog Drummond, a public otherwise figuring it for a reissue, especially as the pic played down-bill in most situations.  Many keys used Drummond as support to An American In Paris. Walter Pidgeon was titular lead over otherwise Brit support, his an only meaningful name in credits. Eased to mature character work stateside, here was rugged departure that saw Pidgeon at gunplay and fist brawling, Drummond gone undercover to bust up a burgling ring. The idea was sound enough had Calling Bulldog Drummond been made cheaper, but this was new day where sole star Pidgeon, let alone as a mostly-forgot sleuth, couldn't haul weight even as a second feature. Enjoyable as it turned out, Calling Bulldog Drummond took a million $ loss, result of ruinous $372K in domestic rentals and barely better $546K foreign. Needless to say, a series was scotched. Pity so many concepts once a cinch were moribund now. Seemed everyone's crystal ball was cracked, especially at Metro. Calling Bulldog Drummond is available from Warner Archive to let us know what so many customers missed in 1951. Quality is fine, the show a trim 79 minutes, and not overstuffed as we might fear from Leo. Bonus with the DVD is the Goldwyn Bulldog Drummond from 1929 with Ronald Colman. They're a spot-on pair and much recommended.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Old West Sundown For Gary Cooper

The Real West (1961) Sets The Frontier Saga Straight

The Real West was broadcast on March 29, 1961. Six weeks later, onscreen "storyteller" and narrator Gary Cooper, this his final appearance, would be gone. The public learned between these two events that Cooper was gravely ill, that having been tipped by James Stewart in an emotional tribute to Coop at the Academy Awards ceremony (April 17), and spread the next day by worldwide press. Insiders mostly knew prior to that. Cooper himself had learned of his inoperable condition in late February, but pushed forward to complete The Real West because he believed in the project, had in fact volunteered to do it, and of course, lent stature to the finished program no one else could have duplicated. The Real West would serve as epitaph for Cooper as well as a vanished frontier it explored. Lost to a public still devoted to Cooper (popularity only enhanced by past work all over television) were three he had pacted to do for 20th Fox, The Comancheros a first, and set for January 1961 start, but docs, and his wife, knew before then that the situation was hopeless. Trades had a kind way of shielding stars where stricken, Variety and others into 1961 assuring that Cooper would work again, despite private suspicions that indeed he would not. This was done for Bogart through 1956, and was barometer of how loved these people were by an industry so enhanced by their participating in it.

Among Last Things Cooper Did --- A Savings and Loan Magazine Ad

Coop was bullish on The Real West. He spoke to Hedda Hopper about it in February 1961 and would submit to TV GUIDE for a profile to appear in the March 25-31 issue, which was week of the NBC broadcast, these fascinating glimpse of Cooper's priorities as he approached a finish. "People," he told TV GUIDE, "don't recognize me as much as they used to. Only the older people. The kids today have Frankie Avalon and Elvis Presley. They pretty much leave me alone." He spoke with Hopper of early talkie days, referring to Roy Pomeroy and how Victor Fleming stood up to the self-serving sound coordinator, this as follow-up to Coop naming his all-time favorite role, The Virginian. Great stuff --- there's bottomless well of pic history in Hopper columns. Why hasn't someone mined them for a book? --- and I mean a real anthology and not just more of the gossip stuff. The Real West would not be Gary Cooper's West. He wanted it real, and that meant departing from myths made in his and other outdoor actioners. The program still ended up being a valedictory for him, a walk into sunset as moving as William S. Hart introducing Tumbleweeds for a 1938 reissue. Producer-director of The Real West Donald Hyatt wrote a farewell for Variety (8/2/61) that was vivid recount of "The Last Performance" by Gary Cooper. You Tube has The Real West, and there is a DVD available.

Monday, November 06, 2017

A 50's Roast Of The Silent Era

Dreamboat (1952) Gets Fun From Old Flix

Premise has staid college prof Clifton Webb concealing for years his past as a silent movie heart-throb. This is 1952 when silent films were jeered at or thought creepy in line with Sunset Boulevard and past luminaries living dangerously in the past. What mention there was of silent stars was one or other found waitressing or in police court. I'd be interested to know how many became college instructors, or earned a degree at higher education. Webb's Dreamboat character claims at one point that he was plucked out of teaching to act in movies. Was there real-life instance of this? Dreamboat but mildly jabs at the silent era, the real target being television and all its worthless works. Hollywood was bitter and alarmed by the new media, and with reason. Little of what the industry made could turn profit, Dreamboat barely eking dark ink despite but $1.2 million spent. The concept was one that ads had to explain, as in sample above, and at left. As with other ideas unclear from a title alone (When In Rome, for instance), ticket sales might falter where set-ups weren't apparent from the marquee or posters outside. Black-and-white comedy was too easy to get for free at home. Still, if anyone could turn vault key at ticket windows, it was Clifton Webb, who was close as Fox had to a guaranteed money star in the 50's, him being what Betty Grable had once been for 20th.

What put Webb over was social skill (much) in addition to waspish and one-of-kind screen persona. He was a bitchier W.C. Fields who'd not back from his edge to be lovable. Once comedy found Webb, he was unstoppable. Sitting Pretty and then Cheaper By The Dozen were massive hits, two million or more for each in profit. Sequels and follow-ups were, if not as lush, dependable. To social panache mentioned, I'd say that's where Webb consolidated stardom and made friend of everyone powerful in the business. He charmed Zanuck and played lawn croquet at the mogul's Sunday gathers. DFZ had friends among those in Fox employ, but he was a true fan of Clifton Webb. The cycle of CW in comedy went right to end of the 50's, and I'd propose, kept the star at peak of a public's awareness thanks to most backlog showing up on NBC Saturday nights, their prime and premiere post-48 showcase of Fox features a must-weekend-see for tele-viewers. Dreamboat, by the way, picked up another $200K for the NBC sale, its net bow on 11-25-61 (Variety on 2-13-6reported that per-title price for a first NBC movie season).

Dreamboat raises practical questions, first which, could anyone who was a major attraction in the 20's blend seamlessly into private life and not be recognized, let alone in a campus setting where they address groups every day? It takes TV exposure of his old films, presumably not seen in years, for "Thornton Sayre" to be unmasked as "Bruce Blair," this result of negatives "being bought for peanuts" by programmer Fred Clark. So here's next inquire: How many silent features played the home box during early 50's? I understand some of Fairbanks did, and maybe stuff Joe Schenck or other independents owned, but what else? I said features now, not short comedies or cartoons. I know those were fed to kiddies from early on. What burns Thornton Sayre is oldies run every week, and nationwide. That would mean network, and I know of no dedicated net series for pre-talkers for whole of the 50's, or in all of TV history for that matter (closest would be Silents, Please, where ABC offered truncated features).

Sayre-daughter Anne Francis is invited by the mean girl sorority to a Bruce Blair broadcast, idea being to humiliate her before a crowd. Fox clearly had it in for Greek systems, if not college structure as a whole. Once-respected instructor Sayre can only save his job by heading Gotham way to bell network fat cats, one of whom is his old co-star Ginger Rogers, now in league with Clark and junk merchants we presume made up all of televised output. Largest laughs of Dreamboat come where Bruce Blair and "Gloria Marlowe" (Rogers) do silent emoting, these clips very much 50's concept of what wowed 20's public. Audiences were flattered and amused to see voiceless films ridiculed. How far we had come from such primitive entertainment! For all of rankle purists get from the jape, Bruce Blair's recreated vehicles are funny, him less a Valentino than John Gilbert, or perhaps Ronald Colman in first flowering. There is a Zorro send-up, desert dashings, WWI aviating, most of genres we then and now associate with vanished time. The clips seem less a mockery of silents because they are so enjoyable. I wonder if exiting moviegoers in 1952 thought of giving more relics a go, especially if they were this much fun.

An aside with regard 50's, specifically Fox, ideal of appeal, re distaff talent. 1952 saw a number of women on 20th contract, none so sky-high as Marilyn Monroe by that year, hers a cat-bird seat not to be seized by any of rivals through rest of a decade. But how does the contest play in retrospect? That is, sixty-five long years in retrospect? For me at least, Monroe is more the Bruce Blair of stone-age standard at allure, Anne Francis infinitely more appealing as a "museum type" presented in Dreamboat as so drab that network go-getter Jeffrey Hunter has to be arm-twisted into taking her out. I always thought of Francis as very much the dish that Monroe was proposed to be in Don't Bother To Knock, a same year launch of MM as starring sex bomb and presumed object of patron desire. Audiences were always manipulated as to who their idols should be, be it in Bruce Blair's day, or our own. What of those who think outside the box where it comes to instinctive response? Anne Francis in Dreamboat and Jean Peters in following year's Niagara beat socks off Monroe for me, that no slam on MM, unless lure is assumed to be all she ever had to offer. I've suspected more of late that it is women who today are more fascinated by Marilyn Monroe, for reasons I'll not try to divine. Dreamboat is available from Fox On-Demand DVD, but watch for it instead on TCM or FXM, where it plays HD and looks fine.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

You'll Feel Every Cannon Shot

Cease Fire! (1953) Finally Back In 3-D Glory

I've not gone looking for on-the-ground documentaries about the Korean War, but can't offhand imagine how any could be so effective as this 3-D march over actual battle sites with real personnel who fought. Cease Fire! was boldest experiment muted by a gimmick too few respected. Had producer Hal Wallis jettisoned 3-D, he'd have maybe had at least a critic success if not an economic one (reviews still overall good, but did depth dial greater respect down?). Cease Fire! seems more a Wallis whack at prestige, like Come Back Little Sheba, than cash-in on a process the public was already tiring of. In either case, Cease Fire! played most engagements flat. What seemed to limit the film actually enhances it now. Surface impression is of soldiers trying to act and some falling down on that unaccustomed job, which of course was whole point of the till-then never-tried exercise. Yes, there had been G.I.'s on camera before, as background and even speaking support to, for instance, John Wayne in Sands Of Iwo Jima, but Cease Fire! had dog faces as the whole show, and who can complain where entirety of the cast is the McCoy? We adjust to the amateurs right off because none stand out as pros, all earning nod for game effort at showing what they'd gone through in combat. Fact that some would end up casualties is further boost to verisimilitude. Wallis should have gotten documentary awards for doing Cease Fire!.

Wallis was still a show-me-the-money producer, Cease Fire! no sop to applause from reviewers. It would be sold on action and authenticity terms, and just so no one would misread Cease Fire! as a newsreel in depth, there were trailers boosting the show along lines of Battleground plus other pics that had brought war recount out of doldrums. Trouble was this being a Korea war, where goals seemed obscure against backdrop of "peace talks" we read as exercises in futility. Cease Fire! acknowledges that with at least one character to represent doubt of ever getting out of this far-away mess (suggested combo: Cease Fire! with Pork Chop Hill). Whatever integrity in the telling, Cease Fire!, which ran low tab in negative cost ($265K), took back less than a million in domestic rentals for both flat, and limited 3-D, playdates. Afterward vanishing act made Cease Fire! a barely known artifact of the 3-D era --- we couldn't see it even on syndicated TV. Kino's Blu-Ray amounts to a brand new old movie for ones of us born since last theatrical dates over sixty years ago. Crack team at 3-D Archive is again at helm of stereo-view recovery (both picture and sound), my guess that Cease Fire! never played this fine on its best first-run presentment. Be sure to read exhaustive coverage of the film's production and release by Ted Okuda at the 3-D Archive site. This is research of the highest order. Cease Fire! will be released November 21 on 3-D/Blu-Ray. It is a must-see for devotees of depth and even more so, those seeking combat coverage with artifice off.

All images above courtesy the 3-D Archive.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Enough To Make You Think Vampires Are Real

Nominate Vampyr (1931) For All-Time Creep Out

Because of its spelling, I went around years pronouncing Vampyr as Vam-peer, a nod on my part to greater sophistication of Euros who'd made this odd and very acquired taste of a chiller. First familiarity came of Carlos Clarens' An Illustrated History Of The Horror Film, published in 1967, where creepy stills promised fear cold as a grave, implying burial alive among highlights. Problem, of course, was seeing the thing. Television had none of it, while further book reference (The Film Till Now) spoke of "a film much applauded by the intelligentsia," author Paul Rotha's seeming dismissal of  Vampyr as "very much of a museum piece." Was this as much result of awful prints in circulation? There were versions in varied language, that is what little could be made out from largely inaudible soundtracks. Directing Carl Dreyer had covered bases re English, German, French editions, but much of reception was cool, and I couldn't find indication that Vampyr got US release beyond a Film Daily mention on 10/30/33, wherein Arthur Ziehm of General Foreign Sales Corp. was said to have acquired rights.

Vampyr floated for decades at diminished capacity. Histories when they mentioned it did so in terms of compromised image. "Unfortunately the prints that are available in the United States are not made from the master negative and so their photographic quality is rather poor," said one 1960 reference. Ever the opportunist Raymond Rohaeur booked Euro-passage in October 1964 to acquire rights from Vampyr's producer/money man/star Baron Nicolas De Gunzburg (how many Barons got kicks making movies?), who'd almost forgot Vampyr. Rohauer did a customary slash-and-burn job of warning off "bootleg" copies of his new-obtained pic and combed archives to upgrade elements where possible. Subtitling whiz Herman Weinberg was hired to do a same for Vampyr. College and festival runs evolved once Weinberg finished his work in January 1968. Variety announced a Paris "first-run" in May, 1968, on a festival menu with Buster Keaton's The Cameraman. Fleetwood Films "will reissue (Vampyr) this (1968) winter in a more complete form than has ever been shown in the US," said Variety. Dreyer's would become known as a deepest-dish chiller and challenge for watchers to stay awake. There's nothing in horror's universe like it, but patience is required. Moments of Vampyr top any effect thrill-makers have achieved. Now that prints are decent, we can fuller appreciate promise put forth by Clarens' book images of fifty years ago.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Doors Open at Universal's Dark House

Broadway's Gala Open for The Old Dark House at Gotham's House Of Horror, the Rialto

Halloween Harvest 2017 --- The Gothic Masterpiece Back In A Fresh Frame

It would be remiss not to write about The Old Dark House after most of a lifetime spent waiting for it. There were several filmic Yetis during formative days, glimpsed by senior fans long before us (Ackerman, Everson, Carlos Clarens), but inaccessible beyond fotos sprinkled round books and monster mags. Maybe it was healthy to have grails past reach, for the quest sharpened instincts and made ultimate getting the sweeter once The Ghoul, The Man Who Changed His Mind (two others from the 30's with Karloff), and The Old Dark House saw rescue from seeming oblivion. House seemed most urgent for coming between Frankenstein and The Mummy, a Karloff stopover denied our hungry niche due to Universal rights expired, then sold subsequent for a remake, ownership to Raymond Rohauer and then his successors. The Old Dark House missing from television packages was like a record album that skipped over the very song you bought it for. Of course there was legend, abetted by stills, that this was most horrific of all horrors, an expectation applied also to Mystery Of The Wax Museum and the Fredric March Jekyll and Hyde before they came out of hiding. What are such dreams but harbinger to letdown when finally they come true?

Universal Announces a Dark House Reissue for 1939
Once-lost ones had happy ways of getting better with each viewing. We'd come away cool at first, try again with hope that this time things would improve, which indeed most did. Such was my experience with The Old Dark House, its potential to gain most considerable since all along we knew that poor prints did the film no justice. Most home releases fizzled, exception being a 1996 laser disc that put best face on source material accessible for commercial release at the time. 16mm before these were like firecrackers that got wet. All of collectors I knew who duped The Old Dark House are gone now, those prints no worse than reception on TV where we tolerated the rest of Universal monsters, except to possess The Old Dark House needed $175 at the least, plus fact this was "hot" merchandise and Rohaeur was vigilant where his stuff was pinched. Just having The Old Dark House conferred status enough, but you'd hesitate showing it for complaints the print would arouse. Archives and revival sites had licensed play of a Library Of Congress clean-up (from saved Universal elements), but these were distant point from flyover and backwood a lot of us occupied. You might as well say The Old Dark House has been truly lost for lifetime of most. For me at least, it could as readily be London After Midnight, for I really don't count time served with poor/poorer renditions, which is why the new-arrived Blu-Ray is tall timber for this Uni fan.

To matter of chills subdued, and levity by director James Whale, elements disagreeable to fans expecting the moon, let it be said that The Old Dark House isn't about shocks any more than other horrors Universal did in 30's prime. What newcomers need to know is this: The Old Dark House has fabulous atmospherics, mood enough to spread over a dozen lesser chillers, and a house  living full up to promise of the title. The Cat and The Canary worked a same magic and was silent. You can cut down the volume on The Old Dark House and get full value. I've always thought 30's horror scored on settings we saw, not how many fiends jumped out of cupboards. The Old Dark House does have humor, but not an undercutting kind. In fact, it is the cast's way with wit that make hearing as pleasurable as the looking (so do keep volume up). Since actors like Karloff, Charles Laughton, and Ernest Thesiger aren't born any more, let's cherish chance to see the three at full tilt, plus other eccentrics at Whale command. The Old Dark House is fresh this week from the Cohen Film Collection and quality is heaven-sent. You'll want to watch two or three times just to see wonders performed here. And note reading tip --- Classic Images is just out with the November issue and they have a fabulous fifteen-page overview on The Old Dark House by historian triad David Colton, Tom Weaver, and Dr. Robert J. Kiss. Everything is here, including an interview with disc producer Tim Lanza, who tells the story behind the Blu-Ray. All this is film scholarship of the highest order, and I was enthralled. Classic Images this month is a must companion for long-awaited joy that is The Old Dark House.
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