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Monday, April 24, 2017

A Capra Back From Oblivion


The Matinee Idol (1928) Is A Happy Silent Save


Frank Capra with players Bessie Love and Johnnie Walker
An early Frank Capra that turned up after years lost, The Matinee Idol makes a nice pair with John Ford's also lately-rediscovered Upstage, both dealing with lives among small-time theatrical folk. This was pursuit any director knew well, for even if Capra or Ford never trod boards themselves, they were constantly in contact and association with those who had. Much affectionate humor came of treating a way of stage life that was fading even before talkers got hold, theatrical boarding houses and traveling stock companies soon to be but memories. Wherever old melodramas were recreated, as in The Matinee Idol, there'd be thick slicing of ham, as though movies had gotten us all past that, and who needed it now except to raise chuckles and maybe a nostalgic tear. Within mere handful of years, silent films would be treated a same way, quaint antiquity we had outgrown and so better off for it.


Capra makes his traveling troupe a likeable lot, oblivious to fact theirs is an obsolete art, and easily exploited by passing-through Broadway sharpies that would see them laughed at by city dwellers. The Capra team keeps humor visual, his teachings from Sennett and earlier Roach standing the young director in good stead. Capra was well fitted to gags laced with romance and heart tug, the three playing harmony in The Matinee Idol. Finding this long-lost one raises Capra stock beyond high place it already was. Would have been nice, in fact, for the silent era to last a few more seasons so he could do more modest but effective comedies like this. Bessie Love as actress on a sawdust stage was not unlike parts she'd take when talk came in. Maybe it was her being so utterly right for these that made The Broadway Melody, The Girl In The Show, and Chasing Rainbows come in quick succession for this actress during 1929. The Matinee Idol works also as combo to Buster Keaton's Spite Marriage, both ribbing Civil War mellers done at yokel level. There surely were oodles of such plays, considering how often movies spoofed them.




Friday, April 21, 2017

Somewhere There's An Audience For Everything


Night Of The Hunter, Here's Your Public ...

Night Of The Hunter took the bobsled most places, but I bet not in Steubenville, where local filming fueled interest in Charles Laughton's horrific fairy tale. Nearby Moundsville as homeplace to source novelist Davis Grubb was help as well, for locals knew his name, if not the author himself. Movies with a backyard connection tend to play well in same backyard, even if they plunge elsewhere. For my NC neck of woods, it was Thunder Road, Redline 7000, The Flim-Flam Man, The Last American Hero, others I could name. Every bomb found its target somewhere. For Night Of The Hunter, it was playdates in southern Ohio and West Virginia vicinity. These folks got fun seeing if preacher Harry Powell might drive past a farm they knew. Here's guessing Night Of The Hunter did worlds better than upcoming Summertime with K. Hepburn ...




Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Sternberg Says It With Sound


Thunderbolt (1929) Strikes On TCM

Broadway Opening for Thunderbolt
Josef von Sternberg was an ace director, but it was George Bancroft’s manly guffaw that drew crowds to Thunderbolt in 1929. The star was blessed with a voice ideal to his image, that of hard case, if not outright bad man. Sternberg had used Bancroft, made a name of him in fact, with Underworld and The Docks Of New York. Sound obliged the director to put visual flourish second to capture of voices. He opens with panache, tracking with a cat that crosses feet of lovers in a park, finishing at clandestine Fay Wray and Richard Arlen, theirs a taboo love because she’s moll to gang lord Bancroft. Anyone versed in Chaney saw his formula applied to Bancroft. Big and bluff, that is, with heart of eventual mush. Mob men would toughen up, play closer to street reality, after Robinson and Cagney took the field as Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. Bancroft’s sort of outlaw belonged to the silent era, as did “Good Badmen” brethren more common to western garb.


Bancroft gave persuasive voice to his musketeers of the pavement. Street slang of crook derivation lent him authority, as it would to same-year gang-denizens of Broadway and even role-model Lon Chaney in his Unholy Three talk debut. Bancroft had lucked into a boisterous laugh that punctuated much of dialogue he did. The gag followed him even from Paramount to Fox for Blood Money, a good one, in fact maybe his best, but “Bancroft Laughs” was by 1933 a stale joke, modern viewers responding to it more in terms of what’s got into this guy? Thunderbolt was challenge to see until TCM lately surprised viewership by leasing it from Universal for a Fay Wray night. I didn’t see it noted online, but for Sternberg completests, this was noteworthy event. Thunderbolt is a letdown where too much expectation meets limit of talkies in gestation and even great directors bent to service of new-installed microphones. We read of how best of them overcame odds --- William Wellman, also at Paramount, moving recorder booms a first time for Chinatown Nights (but was he pioneering? Some say no).


Thunderbolt is recognizably Sternberg, his signature dim only where talk eats entirety of reels. We balk at sterility of that, and a second Thunderbolt half confined with Bancroft on death row, but here’s where ’29 reviewers clapped loudest with praise for “realism” of men facing last miles (“… great and looks authentic,” said Variety). Novelty of the condemned facing grim green door was enough to full-engage a public already taken by tabloid-hyped executions (notably femme food for frying, Ruth Snyder). Tabs even raced each other to a first foto of Ruth, or anyone, at moment of death as juice was applied. Thunderbolt enjoyed boxoffice benefit of going inside where final curtains fell. We say so what to that now, but for ’29 and talk still fresh, this was drama at high pitch. Thirties engagement with hot seats would electrify final act for several a show: Manhattan Melodrama, Angels With Dirty Faces --- The Walking Dead made execution the appetizer where Boris Karloff gets shock treatment for Act One, with resurrection for an encore.




Monday, April 17, 2017

Eastwood Revamps For The US Market


Hang 'Em High and Coogan's Bluff Ask Us To Buy American 

These were a pair that Clint Eastwood made in the US after he had been The Man With No Name three times. Those out of Europe would change our concept of frontier men. One-time Rowdy Yates became the anti-anti-hero for a worn out genre. Trouble was accepting him back on American soil, where the wearing out was accomplished fact. Hang ‘Em High especially was like Rowdy back in stirrups. Feature westerns long since stank of television, background littered by faces too familiar from the tube. Italo imports had an edge because anything might happen in them. Life was obviously cheaper there, Eastwood gunning down five for every one dispatched back home. The former MWNN, called “Jed Cooper” in Hang ‘Em High (and a marshal, yet) rescues a calf from rapids, then is hanged by last week’s guest cast from Gunsmoke. I noted discrepancy then (Fall 1968) and wondered if Eastwood erred in coming home. Hang ‘Em High was less bad and more reversal of new direction the Leones had promised. Should Eastwood have stayed abroad to play out a fashion he started, or return to uncertainty of homegrown stardom to be earned from ground up? Hang ‘Em High and Coogan’s Bluff, coming but months apart, were neither a sure thing toward the goal.


Tingling Excitement As Clint Subdues Beloved "Skipper" Of TV Fame


Hang ‘Em High was essentially a get-even yarn, but Yanks were skittish still with revenge served cold, so our man dons a badge, making him an Establishment figure at a time we were all fed up with Establishment figures. A music score by Dominic Frontiere wobbles between overwrought and faux-Morricone. There are reminders of great westerns and even noirs past: Ben Johnson, Charles McGraw, a barely-there Dennis Hopper just before Easy Rider breakout. Hang ‘Em High could be labeled slapdash, historian William K. Everson calling it so in later excoriation where it stood for Decline and Fall of the western genre. I watched Hang ‘Em High on the MGM/HD channel and saw credit for Eastwood’s Malpaso company as co-producer. Same with Coogan’s Bluff. That’s quite a grip Eastwood had on direction of his starring career, and from early on. Fact he was older and well-seasoned by the late 60’s had much to do with smarts acquired. You wonder if he was plotting all this from beginnings at U-I and piloting jet that downed Tarantula.




Int'l One-Sheet and Ad Copy Pushes Eastwood Italo Western Roots  
Coogan’s Bluff was an improvement, being among other things a slam on the counterculture, and feature emphasis on what Jack Webb preached at his weekly Dragnet re-do. Fact Universal was host to both Coogan and Webb points up fundamental conservatism in force, but soon to slide as termites dug deeper. Did Wasserman sign off on politics as Coogan-expressed? Director Don Siegel wrote in his memoir of front office overlook every step of ways through Coogan’s Bluff and earlier The Killers. Seems also that Eastwood had considerable creative hand. He and Siegel customized a useable script from multiple drafts spread out on a floor, taking best of scenes and dialogue from each. The concept of a cowboy loose in Gotham was familiar since silents, Hoot Gibson and Harry Carey having rode herd on city slickers, then Buck Jones, George O’ Brien for talkies. Coogan’s Bluff put edge on its knife by letting flower children be purveyors of crime and moral rot. This was catnip for frustrated majority who saw youth as way out of control and Eastwood a force for return to normalcy. He and Siegel would apply message of Coogan’s Bluff to signature endorsement of law-order that was Dirty Harry. The wake of that massive hit put Coogan’s Bluff deep in shade. None of college audience I served in the 2000’s had even heard of Coogan, occasion being a combo with Eastwood/Siegel Escape From Alcatraz, and these were Eastwood fans, if not completests. Pity it’s become obscure, for Coogan’s Bluff is one of leanest and best of Eastwood pics before he took altogether control of output.




Friday, April 14, 2017

An Almost-Chiller From Universal

Eddie Takes a Guilt Trip Ahead Of Scarlet Street Ordeal To Come

Flesh and Fantasy (1943) Spins Three Supernatural Stories

Pretty punk transfer. At least I could see and hear it. Universal Vault is like going back to stone age that was syndicated TV, their DVD's too often stale Cracker Jacks and without a prize. But how else to see this ever-elusive omnibus with all-star cast at supernatural doings? You could ask why Flesh and Fantasy didn't make Screen Gems' SHOCK package with Universal others, then of course we'd have seen it two dozen times by age fifteen. There are three tales, none scary, but each engaging. I liked the middle one with Edward G. Robinson best, him offering prelude to a situation not unlike what later drove The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, more noirishly executed there. I felt for all of Flesh and Fantasy that Universal was holding back, not wanting to confuse this class offering with lowdown monster stuff being fed kids in same seasons. And yet 20th Fox did full-out horror for a carriage trade with The Lodger, plus there was The Uninvited, where Paramount proposed ghosts as real enough, and warned us to be wary of them.

Marvelous Creepy Setting, But Flesh and Fantasy Only Fitfully Pays Off On It

Flesh and Fantasy was done in-house by Universal, though produced by outsiders Charles Boyer (star) and Julien Duvivier (director). Boyer was free-lance after a contract period in the 30's with Walter Wanger, had been in hits, was recognized as a top romantic lead man who selected properties well. Duvivier was his friend who'd made a name in France, did films there that were known, if not seen, by US interests. He had lately come over to direct Lydia, with Merle Oberon, for Alex Korda, and then multi-storied Tales Of Manhattan, also with Boyer, and profitable for 20th Fox. Universal would sink much (for them) into Flesh and Fantasy, one of three "top-budgeted" pics (Variety) slated for late summer-fall '42 production. Other two of the group were Hitchcock's Shadow Of A Doubt, produced independently by Jack Skirball for U release, and Pittsburgh, an agent-packaged deal worked out by Charles K. Feldman, who had finessed as much with The Spoilers earlier that year. Universal had begun to embrace outside pacts where risk wasn't altogether theirs, half or more financing to come via partners.


Carny Setting Evokes Freaks and Later Nightmare Alley, But That's Where Comparison Ends


Director Julien Duvivier Rehearses Barbara Stanwyck
Flesh and Fantasy had distinction of a solid cast, putting product on track to class bookings, a thing Universal coveted and got with their Deanna Durbin and now Abbott and Costello series. Borrowings augmented a line-up that was, like Boyer, free-lance (including Barbara Stanwyck). From Warners would come Edward G. Robinson, plus John Garfield, who pulled out but days ahead of start, and got suspended by WB for his pains. Universal claimed to kick in $250K for promotion, which would, they said, be a highest- ever outlay toward sales. Truth in the claim was anyone's guess, but the pressbook was size of a Navajo blanket, so we may assume showmen were impressed. U was a company determined to leap the B fence and sup at wartime first-run wells. Extravagance translated to one more story than Flesh and Fantasy's pot could hold, four shot but room enough only for three once initial edit was done. Least starry of the group was Destiny, with contract pair Gloria Jean and Alan Curtis, this plucked off and released later as a stand-alone feature, direction filled out by studio mule Reginald Le Borg.




Flesh and Fantasy saw the future beyond theme of clairvoyance and dreams it wove. Here was precursor to short-form chilling that television would bleed white through decades to follow. Trouble with Boyer-Duvivier's mix was pull-back from scares we'd grow to expect where content peered into unknown. Blame Flesh and Fantasy restraint on studio timidity, censor threat, and belief a thinking audience wouldn't sit for spooks. Best for us, then, to approach Flesh and Fantasy in knowledge it will dodge creepy promise. Closer exam of the Val Lewton series from RKO might have inspired creative heads to juice this up, but as Flesh and Fantasy was pocket dramas of fate, and too polite to be explicit, outcome could be neither fish nor fowl. Watch this for parallels with U's Phantom Of The Opera of a same release year, both too formal-dressed to please Uni's monster army, then or now.




Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Metro Issues Wedding Invitations


Father Of The Bride Is 1950's Profit Present

Spencer Tracy had done some weak ones and a try at Broadway when this came along to hand him a bigger-than-ever hit and career definer. You sense it in his opening speech, this moment when a mass audience identified closest with Tracy's everyman. His Father was the character most would recall ST best for, so many having been in the pickle he portrays here. Father Of The Bride is genteel comedy; sometimes you wish they'd bust out with a little slapstick, and maybe that's what makes so refreshing the nightmare of Tracy entering rubber floors of the church and losing trousers as he struggles up a dream-sequenced aisle. That's the scene often excerpted, certainly a most imaginative in a show played in surprisingly long takes. That's no bad thing, of course, with a pro like Tracy to command eye/ear.


He turned fifty that year, aging same as the century, more severely as his fifty looked sixty, fifty-five like seventy, and so on. Spence's weight was up too; he liked sweets and wouldn't forfeit cake and ice cream when offered. Fun, then, to see him devour it here --- I'd bet he made them serve the real thing and asked for repeated takes. Tracy was one of the actors who'd really eat when scenes called for it, lesser lights faking bites to avoid interference with precious lines. Father Of The Bride is heavy on upper-middle-class 50's lifestyle; dissertations could come of close study (have they already?). A lot of social drinking goes on --- I wonder if the PCA made noise over that. The wedding itself plays like sacred ritual, which is what such ceremony is supposed to be, of course, but this is religion in terms of spending and show; heaven knows the number of nuptials that were staged after Father's fashion. Father Of The Bride handed MGM their biggest 1950 hit after King Solomon's Mine, a fantastic three million in profit, and no wonder plans were immediate for a sequel, Father's Little Dividend repeating success in terms of two million gained.




Monday, April 10, 2017

Will Rogers Keeping Fox Afloat

Holdovers A Given Where Rogers Played

The Team Of Ford and Rogers Has Its Best With Judge Priest (1934)




Judge Priest is from wretched lot of Hollywood features that fell into the Public Domain during the 70's. That's how most of us saw it then, and since. Poor impression could be expected, as no print I saw passed muster, least of all ones sold on 16mm and eventually video cassette. What a lot of us knew of Will Rogers was gleaned from Judge Priest, as how many with him showed up on TV? (for me, exactly one: Steamboat Round The Bend on Charlotte's Channel 36). Watching PD rubbish on UHF should have cured us of old films evermore, but as with poor reception, cuts, and commercial breaks, imagination filled in quality such presentations took away. Judge Priest only got greatness back when Fox included it among a John Ford Big Box of DVD's (released 2007, pricey at the time, much less now). Further improvement is lately had from I-Tunes HD stream, putting Judge Priest to best advantage yet. Here is instance where a film finally approaches quality of stills taken in 1934 to publicize it, digital again giving us near-as-possible access to films as they were meant to look when new. And best of all, enjoyed from convenience of home.




Legend persists of Ford bossing sets and taking no backtalk from help. For a most part, this was so, but Will Rogers was nobody's shove-around, being famous in ways a Ford or anyone could barely dream about, and a totally instinctive performer who had less use for scripts than JF who famously ripped pages from them when behind schedule. Fortunately, the two got along. Rogers had too much going with wide-syndicated newspaper columns and dining with presidents to worry how a movie turned out. Besides, they all made profit whatever merit or lack of. Rogers was the best screen voice Ford had before John Wayne came along. They thought a lot alike and Jack trusted Will to put over dramatic situations ever where latter ignored printed words. Ford said Rogers' paraphrasing was better anyway, which must have flattered Fox oarsmen who sweated over dialogue, only to see it cast to winds.






Judge Priest takes place at the turn of the century, but it is about the Civil War. Arguments persist among townfolk as to details of battle fought forty years before. Men attend ice cream socials in dress Confederate uniforms. North-South concerns inform everyone's social standing. Veterans of the struggle were alive when Judge Priest made theatrical rounds in 1934. Humor might derive from war memories, but they could not be mocked. Recite of battlefield heroism becomes sacred ritual in a courtroom otherwise given to skylarking and spittoon aiming. Henry B. Walthall's valedictory for the Lost Cause bestirs memory of D.W. Griffith and The Birth Of A Nation, Ford's knowing tribute to a past master who taught most directors everything they knew. I wonder if DWG was invited to visit the set that day, because Walthall seems to be addressing him as much as characters in Judge Priest.





Ours was still a rural country in the mid-thirties. Movies could get back their cost and then some on domestic rentals alone. Small town admissions still meant something where majority of theatres operated with 500 or less seats. Fox could rely on these to take Will Rogers to break-even point every time, plus he had crossover to urban sites thanks to column work and books he penned. Rogers was remembered too from the Follies, so was no product confined to hicks. He could probably have gone on at least to WWII had not death intervened. Demand did an uptick after that event, Steamboat Round The Bend, released posthumously, getting best Rogers money so far, topping even State Fair. Reissues came after a decent interval, Fox having said initially they'd not exploit morbid interest. Judge Priest yielded another $116K from 1937 dates. Fox DVD did the unexpected by releasing several Rogers boxes ten years back, and there were more when the Ford-Fox set came later. Judge Priest remains most ubiquitous thanks to PD status.
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