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Monday, December 11, 2017

The Smash That's Gone Forgot

Smilin' Through (1932) Is Pre-Code Pure

Smilin' Through was by far the biggest Norma Shearer earner from the early-to-mid 30's. It is precode, but clean as snow. Driven by dewy romance and promise that departed lovers remain to comfort the living, Smilin' Through did not need serrated edge of precode. You could show it in a nunnery. I'll bet in some, they did. People were entranced by the film as they had been by the 1919 source play. If you asked outgoing 1932 patrons to name a movie that would last forever, they might well have named Smilin' Through. MGM did a major reissue just a few years after it was new. I emphasize all this because Smilin' Through is so obscure now. TCM lately did an HD upgrade, so it looks newly terrific. A lot call Smilin' Through dated, to which I concur, but would add charmingly so. The story is set at beginning of The Great War, characters looking fifty years back from that as if to a stone age. Anyone who remembered that far had to be mighty old, at least by '32 reckoning. Leslie Howard dons snow hair and shawl as he looks to comfort of death and reunion with Norma, who was long ago shot by Fredric March, who was father of modern Fredric March, who loves Norma the modern, who is adopted daughter of Howard, who forbids the union because he hates March's family, and ... need I go on? The story had shock value for moment of March's Dad shooting down Norma, even if accidental, on her wedding day to Howard. Viewers really took that to streets when Smilin' Through was new, positive word-of-mouth the stuff of studio dreams. Such was effect, and repeat business, as to inspire both the two-years later reissue and a color remake less than ten years aft, when you'd have thought bloom would be off such a delicate rose.

Irving Thalberg routinely tweaked films to what he considered perfection. Many as result got reshot into hamburger. It's no telling what Mask Of Fu Manchu was like before second-guessing got hold of it. Ingrained policy held fast for long past Thalberg's passing, An American Romance, Across The Wide Missouri, many others, the stuff of reshuffle legend (or infamy). Still and all, there were flops that couldn't be fixed. Story got told, I think by Sam Marx, of glum ride home from Strange Interlude, which even Thalberg genius would not conquer. Success finish, however, was norm, Smilin' Through an early 30's summit of these. Death and visitation from beyond were topics that heated up regular as sky eclipse, the 20's having done it with spiritualism, fake to a fault, but still answering a need, then as tweak to 30's romance, and finally a fullest expression when world war and widespread loss made desperate a need to keep faith with the departed. We're made to believe in Norma as ghost seeking garden visit to one-foot-in-grave Leslie Howard, if only because visual effects by Metro by then reached point of conviction not had by previous silent efforts.

Norma Shearer had from beginning shuttled between period and modern dress, this to stay relevant whatever the trends started or followed by handlers. Effort was careful to prevent her being typed with permissive precode. Shearer was ideally calibrated to segue easy once enforcement pulled teeth of her once Free Soul. Only by looking back at whole of careers can we see how brilliantly most were managed. There is a reason, in fact plenty, why these people lasted so long. A massive crowd-pleaser like Smilin' Through could forgive weaker tea served after, but Shearer at a peak, or again her handlers, rarely if ever stumbled. The Strange Interlude anecdote implies it was a flop, and many went on to present day with same assumption, but fact is, the weak-as-it-was outcome still made profit. Even poor product and B's (once Metro committed to them) could be muscled through Loew's-owned houses and season-contracted others to black ink finish. The actual list of MGM output that lost money during the 30's is astonishingly short, the more so when we recall a Depression roiling through most of that decade.

Just Two Years Later, and Metro Brought It Back With a Fresh Campaign

It seldom mattered much who was directing at Metro. That's because it was producers, or committees, or Thalberg when he ran things, that really directed. Most of who got sent down to the floor were functionaries at best, switched around like chess pieces when scheduling demanded. A picture started by Jack Conway might be finished by Clarence Brown, or vice-versa. Some directors were  more independent, like Brown, or King Vidor, maybe W.S. Van Dyke, in part because he was so efficient. Smilin' Through was credited to Sidney Franklin, but that doesn't mean he did the whole thing. Close inspect of day-to-day production records would need to determine that. This is not to say Franklin's imprint wasn't firmest, but even he realized primacy of getting jobs finished on time and budget, even where that meant stepping off to let another man wrap up while he'd do as much for projects similarly in need. Directors one and all had to park egos at Culver gate. A lot of survivors (all?) probably wondered what auteurists were talking when that school became fashion in the 60's.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Marriage Counseling From RKO

Let's Try Again (1934) Reunites A Popular Team

Clive Brook and Diana Wynyard weren't exactly the Team That Generates Steam, but for civilized lovemaking, they were a pair to beat. So how was it we cared about a Brit couple's marital travails? Success of Cavalcade had something to do with that. RKO was here recycling what had worked the previous year for Fox, only on a much reduced scale. There was no disgrace in doing candy box versions of a past hit, being common practice among companies bound to release a feature per week. We can enjoy Let's Try Again for having sights lowered from heavier Cavalcade, being 67 minutes pleasantly spent, though I'd add caveat that liking for Brook/Wynyard is threshold must. As it happens, I'm a Brook loyalist, that a consequence of Greenbriar flying Union Jack where it comes to Brit pics or players. You'd think Let's Try Again was done over there, what with clipped speech and tea service banging against cocktail shakers. In fact, the whole thing takes place between pours. I kept waiting for characters to ask for a bathroom break. In fact, mix was deluded by Code edicts lately in effect, Let's Try Again released mid-1934 after guard dogs were awakened. Still it works, thanks to Britishers' natural reserve and fact that marital discord is here worked out over space of hours rather than weeks/months that might have consumed other partners. Let's Try Again shows up occasionally at TCM.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Could Paramount Sail Silent Ships Again?

Ancient Mariner Old Ironsides Gets A 1959 Encore

Among miracles of late is Kino Lorber releasing Paramount silent features I'd have sworn we'd not see again, including Old Ironsides, a 1926 pageant that's said to define sea-set spectacle. Clearly this is stuff of major anticipation for 2018, as minds naturally wander to just when and how often Old Ironsides was seen over  ninety years since it was new. I would have guessed seldom, and never in theatres once the talkie monster spat out silents. Wrong again, as evidenced by this shock of an ad for the Esquire Theatre in Chicago, a venue you'd figure for an artie, especially with Old Ironsides playing there in 1959, decked out with "Narration and Music Added" for this "Modernized Version." Here was a reissue new to me, but turns out Para put feet to pedal and pushed hard this bring-back, a test, said trades, to see if extreme oldies could still be viable in a modern market. Things got hopping in March '59 with hire of voice great Art Gilmore to narrate. Report from key bookings began in September, Old Ironsides doggy in Denver with a "poor" $5K for the 1,584 seat Denham Theatre, an independent house, then Baltimore clocked a "slow" $1,200 at a 300-seat art address. Chicago saw "drab" biz. Variety tried to help with a feature article on 9/9/59. "The Par tryout could abound in significance. If it shows that the heavy volume of silents in the vaults --- those which haven't deteriorated --- can make for audience satisfaction, it would mean extra millions for all studios." Remember, this was 1959, a time when many assume Hollywood used silents for kindling only. I wonder what Paramount minion came up with this idea --- someone inspired by Robert Youngson's try with Noah's Ark? Variety's piece claimed that "Paramount has over 1,000 talk-less features in its library." Like hell they did, even in 1959, but who writing for trades knew? "If even a small percentage of these can be made merchandisable, the money potential could be beaucoup." Follow-up article on 9/16/17 drove in the nail, Paramount's experiment declared a miss: " ... evidence so far is that "Old Ironsides," which was shown in three theatrical situations ... has been out of sync with public want-to-see," turnout in Chicago, Denver, and Baltimore labeled "below normal." Paramount said it would explore television as possible outlet for the relics. To my knowledge, however, Old Ironsides never played the tube, in 1959 or after. Question: Are there prints still around of the '59 reissue? Were any printed on 16mm? I'm guessing these then-freshened elements may have been used for the version that survives today, and will indeed be what we get in Kino's forthcoming Blu-Ray.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Are Classic Monsters For A Junk Heap?

Out With The Old, In With The Less Old

Seems stuff I love is increasingly spat on even by those a mere fifteen or less years younger. Proof of schism is recent episode of Comic Book Men, AMC's series about guys that run a funnybook and collectibles store in Red Bank, NJ. Producer/moderator is Kevin Smith (born 1970), who splashed with Clerks and Chasing Amy some time back, plus lots of comedy on TV. Recent Comic Book Men has a would-be seller coming into the "Secret Stash" with Marx toys of the Universal monsters, these issued in 1963 when interest was hot among boomers (what a tired term that has become, and how younger folk must resent our being such a large constituency). The Stash staff do repartee as accompany to each buy and sell, this said to be off-cuff, though I bet the program has as many writers as Hope or Skelton in heyday. What gulled me was their disdain for sacred (to me) gallery of horrors --- "really boring" says Brian Johnson (born 1967). Walt Flanagan (also '67) tries to defend the old films, but it's no go. Moderator Smith sums up by citing "the rest of us" who realize we've "moved on" from done-and-out chillers, comparing them with TV antiquity The Beverly Hillbillies and discarded device that was radio (big laff at that). Tough, then, seeing lifetime totems so trampled. Must mythos we cling tightest to be stripped altogether away?

Maybe it's old schools who must let go of paragons a current fanship has no love for. Serial and cowboy followers gave way, or died out. Before that was cling to crystal sets, dime novels, 78 shellac, other discards. Survival of the fittest ... or most current. I'm sure dinosaurs too were aggrieved when conditions no longer accommodated them. I'm a fossil perhaps for clinging to Frankensteins and Draculas. The Comic Book Men (their very name summing up arrested development in us all) will see their favorites head for dust bin of pop's culture, and lots sooner than they expect. There's no blur quicker than in-out of entertainment. Sometimes a single weekend is enough to clear deck, like spent scraps down a disposal. I read lately where Universal gave up effort to create new franchise out of old monsters after sunk stone The Mummy and tepid response to Van Helsing, plus a modernized Wolf Man that took the silver bullet. Did young execs predict futility of reviving creatures they after all had not grown up with?

Extraordinary was 50-60's generation of youngsters embracing a fright past that flourished twenty and thirty years before them. Did we love these films in part because they were of our parent's day? It may have been arrival of later and color horrors to television that diminished our preferred brand. 30's Universal couldn't help but seem stately beside Hammer remakes and TV shows dedicated to scary (the Comic Book Men have rhapsodized before on made-for-tube movies that floored them). To be born beyond a certain point was to find vintage monsters "boring," it seems, Universal's dumping the franchise a nod to tides gone out that won't be back. I'd like to know if any young people find Karloff uncanny, or Lugosi living eternal, or Chaney a "Master Monster." Maybe we should marvel at their staying so long as they did and forfeit the future to those who "Fear The Walking Dead" or whatever other brooms sweep out memory of Universal's classic gallery.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Chaplin Finally Talks and Talks

So Does The Great Dictator (1940) Still Please?

Watched this after a ten or so year break. Parts of it can stand by the best of Chaplin, specifically those where he interacts with other players and doesn’t hog the frame to himself. Weakest for me was opener revamp of Shoulder Arms, CC slowed from tempo he applied to old First National, let alone, Mutual, shorts. Charlie’s tramp needed speed. That may be why he stopped doing the character. The Great Dictator is very long and that makes it seem slower. I was impatient for Chaplin to get out of trenches and move up to present day. His impersonation of Hitler/Hynkel is what I’d assume folks were there to see in 1940. That's certainly been case for modern viewing. Charlie’s a panic here because for a first time he plays an utterly different sort of character. Would his proposed Napoleon have been anything like this? Laughs get a spike from Chaplin letting others be funny too. Was he beginning to feel burden of whole shows tougher to lift? Billy Gilbert and Henry Daniell are as good here as anywhere, but Jack Oakie scores humor for the ages. Might Charlie have trimmed some of Oakie’s foolery to shine more light on his own? If so, he stopped short of enough, as “Napalini” Oakie steals every scene he’s in with CC or anyone else.

The Great Dictator was launched like Queen Mary. Chaplin as usual supervised key bookings, and had Al Hirschfield draw ad art. Everyone called The Great Dictator a risk starting out, but by the time Chaplin finally had it finished, the country, and what of the world could see it, was more than ready to travesty Hitler. Credit Chaplin for seeing ahead with this one. I was reserved about laugh content, but as is so often case, that was penalty for watching alone. I once played The Great Dictator to a University crowd (seating for 75, all taken) and the place lit up. My campaign had drummed Chaplin's “daring” and “courage” for taking on the Reich, with promo emphasis on the Hirschfeld stuff (still a nice, modern look). All of comedy got approval: the shaving bit, trying out of parachutes and the bulletproof vest, potent as I imagine they were in 1940. Biggest response was for Chaplin’s speech at the end, as in they cried, and I mean wept. Applause at the finish peeled varnish off the roof. So much for notion that Chaplin is passé. My experience was that, for a college audience, he worked better than Keaton. Turns out they liked sentiment and pathos current writers debunk. 

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Just When They Thought It Was Safe To Go In Water ...

The Sharkfighters (1956) Is Vic v. Deadly Fish

Victor Mature is Cuba bound to investigate shark habits, his mission to develop repellent for benefit of downed WWII flyers. This was more cerebral content than customary for beefy Vic, made believable by his being fish out of water, as it were, in matters of shark study. Matters are helped by all-location filming, including drives through Havana with Mature pointing out Moro Castle and other points of pre-revolution interest. Producing Samuel Goldwyn Jr.'s crew did The Sharkfighters at same time as Errol Flynn and his Big Boodle crowd, both capturing what would be last unfettered scenes of wide-open islands before Castro sealed them to outsiders. Not helpful to The Sharkfighters was on-location tragedy when a special effects technician with a transformer in hand fell into the water and was electrocuted. The pic was trade-noted as a first US feature 100% Cuba-shot, forgetting perhaps any number of silents that had been lensed southward. Variety admired (few) action highlights, but took dim view otherwise of "actionless, talky piece which becomes almost clinical at times." Toward today consumption, The Sharkfighters turns up occasional on TCM, pleasingly wide per Cinemascope ratio, and beyond interest of subject matter and Mature's understated perf, there is a fine score by Jerome Moross, tuning up dynamism he would bring to immediate-following The Big Country and The Jayhawkers. I wish Screen Archives could get out a CD of Morris music for The Sharkfighters.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Combo That Would Not Die

A Sensational Pair To Back Newsreels

August 1943 Sees The Pair in Cincinnati
Bombastic Hell's Angels, with Scarface (or the other way around), were everywhere through the 40's, a seeming perpetual reissue that would disappear for eternity that was the 60/70's. I searched TV GUIDE through latter fallow period, but neither turned up. Anyone recall Scarface or Hell's Angels on tubes? The New York Post's Lou Lumenick found a Gotham vid run for Hell's Angels dated early 40's as part of his extensive research into broadcast life of features, but here in NC, we waited w/o reward. Astor was an independent distrib that took up Hell's Angels from late 30's revival, keeping it in circulation from there, also Scarface, the duo oft-touted in trade ads. William K. Everson stayed vigilant for prints to show his NY film clubs, but had to cope with incomplete or banged-up 16mm. Hell's Angels and Scarface left much footage along byways of exhibition. It was the 80's and Universal taking over Howard Hughes' negatives before anything like full versions turned up. Still there's question as to these being definitive. There was 16mm printed by U in the 80's for airlines (!), or so dealers who snatched a few told me. Hell's Angels and Scarface are available on DVD, Scarface streaming as well in HD at Amazon and Vudu.
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