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Monday, March 29, 2010







Greenbriar Attends MGM's 25th Anniversary Workshop --- Part One



Do you have the DVD set of That’s Entertainment? If so, find the extra devoted to raw newsreel footage of MGM’s 25th Anniversary luncheon. It runs about ten minutes and is riveting. Parts were used years ago in an ABC special, Hollywood: The Dream Factory (1972), but there’s lots more here. I decided to time tunnel back to that event ... call it April fooling ... in the guise of a company field representative, to join 700 revelers on enormous studio stage 30 (the studio’s biggest). My instrument is set for Thursday, February 10, 1949. No, scratch that. I’m timing my arrival for the previous Sunday, February 6. That’s when Metro’s army begins checking in at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where the company’s Preview Of Product kicks off its week-long series of meetings to coordinate all facets of the company’s activities to make the world conscious of MGM’s anniversary. It won’t be like the last showman’s party they threw in 1937. This one’s a new efficiency version, according to The Motion Picture Herald. No more of those well-lubricated transcontinental junkets with compliant Hollywood starlets to greet us on arrival. This time it’ll be Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, and George Murphy laying out welcome mats (what … no Ava Gardner?). Sounds more like business, says the Herald, and sure enough this confab is plenty subdued beside the blowout we enjoyed twelve years ago. Back then, Louis B. marched through rains of confetti in a parade way better than what Shriners put on, and promised lotsa beautiful girls to show us a good time. From what I hear though, things got bad out of hand when one of us … well, maybe it’s better to let David Stenn tell you about that sordid mess in his documentary, Girl 27. I’m just out here to have a good time, even if that comes minus starlets.










I’m checked in the Ambassador with eighty-one guys from all over the country. We’re the home office executives, sales managers, district and branch managers, and field assistants to the sales managers. They’re driving us out to Culver City first thing Monday morning to start the meetings. A great big conference room awaits (that’s it and us below) where we get to spend the week listening to Mayer, Dore Schary and others give looong speeches. At least there’s screenings to break monotony. They want us to look at the stuff we’re expected to sell exhibitors back home. Personally, I don’t think the Metro product’s been all that hot lately, but for my job’s sake, I’ll keep mum about it. All the execs are hot for Take Me Out To The Ball Game, so much so that they’re switching its March release with an apparent dud entitled Caught, which was originally tabbed for May. That one’s directed by someone named Max Ophüls. So what’s he done for the boxoffice lately? Just heard too that Herbert Stothart died on February 1. Where’s Metro going to get background music now that this guy’s gone? The next we’re looking at is The Secret Garden. My theatres back home will figure it for small pox. Long time since Margaret O’Brien had a hit. Are they going to keep using the kid until she’s doing Ethel Barrymore’s stuff? I say put her with Beery again and give us another Bad Bascomb. One thing I’m not liking is head dog sales manager William F. Rodgers warning us not to violate the new anti-trust laws. He’s making with lots of will not tolerates and living up to court dictates talk. They didn’t use to be so fussy about how we booked their seasons. Rodgers is really trying to throw a scare into us. Remember, he says, the company can’t go to jail, but you may if you are found to be in contempt of the court. Way to throw a wet blanket on my working vacation, Bill.






Dore Schary’s a particular drag to listen to. All that optimism jazz goes down ragged on hard chairs. He’s blabbing about plans to do Quo Vadis again. Only a studio with our vast resources would dare contemplate bringing to the screen and to the audiences of the world a picture with the size and shape … blah and blah. And what’s Mayer going to say when he reads Sunday’s New York Times (February 6) where they interview MGM’s recently installed Production Head? … Schary right now is very probably the most important man in the movie industry, it says. If what I hear about LB is half true, there’s going to be H to pay for this squib. Mayer’s telling us about how he’s giving up his racing stables to devote more time to Metro operations. Some guys during the break wondered if we might be better off with him spending more time at the track rather than less. They feel that Mayer’s behind the times. Is this what’s making it so tough for us to sell MGM nowadays? You bosses can say the future looks bright indeed, but that doesn’t make it so. Schary claims they’re going to get out 67 features for 1949-50. There were only 24 in all of 1948. Are we supposed to calculate our groceries on this? The show we watched Wednesday was The Barkleys Of Broadway, with Astaire and Ginger Rogers together again. Now that makes sense from a money perspective, but then they sat us through something called The Great Sinner, which made me figure the greater sin was MGM’s making this stinker. You’ll pardon me, Metro, for doubting assurances that no other medium could create such entertainment. When it comes to product like The Great Sinner, would any of them want to? I guess to console us, Schary brought up another one they’ve got coming for the anniversary year, something about Clark Gable as a big shot gambler: If we can’t make money with this one, fellows, we all better go back to vaudeville, said he to group laughter. Well Dore, if you don’t start upgrading his vehicles, it may be Gable going back to vaudeville.


















Director of advertising and publicity Howard Dietz went through some flotsam about new frontiers of selling, whatever that means. Then they announced a featurette in preparation called Some Of The Best. It’s said to be a compilation of MGM highlights going back to 1924 when they stated. The studio’s advertising director, Frank Whitbeck, says it will cost $25,000 to put together the forty-minute film, and that it will be available free to exhibitors. Audience reaction is expected to guide them as to which oldies should be reissued. Some of those have done all right, by the way. A Night At The Opera and San Francisco were back in circulation last year and sold. So did a couple of Tarzans from seven or eight years back. Finally, we got to visit some sets for Madame Bovary and The Forsyte Saga, both of which were costume-types, plus a modern thriller-looking something called Border Incident about sneaking Mexicans across US lines (wonder if much of that really goes on). The screenings dragged along with Neptune’s Daughter (looks OK) and The Stratton Story (little worried about Jimmy Stewart getting his leg blown off --- might scare away women and kids). By now it’s Thursday morning and four days into these workshops. I’d hoped to sneak off and see Busch Gardens, but too many supervisors are watching. Our big reward for listening to so much chin music is a luncheon they’re throwing on Stage 30. We’ve been promised a lavish feed and every star on the lot to shake our hands. They’re even serving chocolate ice cream in the shape of Leo The Lion.




Thursday, March 25, 2010


Peck and Milestone Back In Uniform



Pretty much all the major stars had their own production companies in the fifties. It saved them taxes and offered a measure of control over work they did. Only the biggest names needed apply, however, of which Gregory Peck was one. He started Melville Productions in 1956 and began developing properties. Ones most promising lured companies to gamble on partnership, the first being United Artists, a distributor recently risen high in the industry for backing star ventures. Realizing profits from such boutique filmmaking was as uncertain as dice the major studios were throwing. With actors now seeing paydays out of monies realized, there was uncharacteristic deference to budget. They finally had to take responsibility for dollars spent on their vehicles. Peck was experienced enough to realize he’d have to rely on writers and producers with know-how at picture making. His principal ally was Sy Bartlett, who’d written Twelve O’Clock High and done a little producing besides. They purchased in August 1957 a well-received account of a Korean War incident by retired general S.L.A. Marshall. Pork Chop Hill described a bloody engagement minus clarity as to winner and loser. Peck saw the time was right to eschew heroics and reveal combat as the confused and pointless enterprise that our Korean "police action" suggested it was. He also relished opportunity to make or appear in a great film --- the kind that shows every year or so at New York’s Museum Of Modern Art or is hailed as a great film the world around. Toward that end, he hired Lewis Milestone to direct Pork Chop Hill plus two more projects to come. The pic would have to be done cut-rate to avoid red ink, as the star recognized its commercial limitations. Peck wrote in a memo that if Pork Chop Hill couldn’t be finished for $1.3 million, it should not be made at all.






The star/producer sought realism for his war story, but shrank from playing an uncertain lead. Marshall had written that the officer leading the Pork Chop offensive, Captain Joseph G. Clemons, did not come seasoned to that real-life battlefield, an aspect of the event Milestone found compelling and wanted to dramatize. Peck had an image to protect, however, and knew commercial perils of vacillating at command. Besides, the still active army captain he was playing had been assigned technical advisor by a cooperative Pentagon and Peck realized the folly of insulting him. Milestone lacked the juice to win a creative contest with his high profile producer and a military establishment already giving quarter beyond accustomed limits as to how American forces were portrayed. Despite Peck’s artistic ambitions, there would be no All Quiet On The Western Front emerging from this venture. Then why engage Milestone to direct? He’d been more or less inactive as a studio helmsman for several years, lately reduced to TV episode work and at least one car commercial. Still, no director had derived more prestige from a single accomplishment than Milestone did for All Quiet. That was nearly thirty years before, but his was an acknowledged classic in frequent circulation since and an ongoing fixture at Peck's cherished Museum Of Modern Art. Milestone was the lucky charm studios hung on combat subjects keyed to critical plaudits. His name alone assured serious consideration for Edge Of Darkness, The North Star, The Purple Heart, A Walk In the Sun, and Halls Of Montezuma. Milestone’s idea this time was to cut back and forth between fighting at Pork Chop and armistice talks at nearby Panmunjom, the suspense deriving from whether or not peace would be declared before inadequate troops on the hill were wiped out. That sounded like an effective suspense device, except for the fact that it delayed Gregory Peck’s entrance into the narrative by a good (or bad, depending on who you talked to) twenty minutes.










The last thing Peck wanted was a conventional war movie, even as market realities pushed him toward just that. Advisors were aplenty, and second-guessing was rife. According to Milestone, the loudest kibitzing came from the star’s wife. She was for lopping off, according to Milestone, exposition that set up Korea’s conflict from the Red Chinese side. Mrs. Peck’s time observing the editing process convinced her that whatever took place prior to Greg’s coming on the screen was surplusage. Milestone cited this influence as ruination of his efforts: I didn’t agree with the way Mr. Gregory Peck wanted to edit it, so I simply walked out and he edited it the way he saw fit. The director would maintain that Pork Chop Hill had been cut with a dull axe. For his part, the star-producer, along with partners Sy Bartlett and writer James Webb, found Milestone’s version a bit self-conscious and arty. Their tightening up brought the film from nearly two hours down to 97 minutes. Milestone was not surprisingly relieved of his obligation to direct two more features for Melville Productions. A hazard of independent producing was the clash of egos that often derailed creative collaborations. Gregory Peck had fallen out months before with William Wyler on The Big Country. They wouldn’t speak for several years after, and never worked together again. Maybe such personalities needed supervising front offices to mediate and apply discipline when needed. More than a few independent projects came unglued thanks to quarrelling among participants. Peck’s experience was in fact more typical than uncommon during that period when artists were guiding their own filmic output.














United Artists set a 1959 Memorial Day opening for Pork Chop Hill. Their greater effort, however, was focused on the summer’s hoped-for blockbuster The Horse Soldiers, and far more trade support went to that. Still there was a Roxy playdate in New York to follow big grosser Imitation Of Life (I was intrigued to find that the immortal Goofers, of Bop Girl Goes Calypso fame, headlined Pork Chop’s accompanying stage revue). Peck made himself available to introduce and narrate a theatrical trailer, and announced his intent to do a Civil War film with the director/producer team of Stanley Kubrick and James B. Harris, having been impressed by their then-recent Paths Of Glory. Critical reception for Pork Chop Hill was overall very good. Variety thought it something new and special among war stories, while the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther applauded novel elements, but soon enough it was clear the public wasn’t buying. Could it have been black-and-white’s curse? Exhibitors thought so. Peck admitted in a 1961 interview that Pork Chop Hill lacked a relentless surge of forward movement needed to put over a boxoffice success, and acknowledged as well the film’s dearth of appeal to women in the audience. Domestic rentals stopped at $1.845,962 million, with foreign bringing $1.737,571. As the picture’s final cost had climbed to $1.75 million, Pork Chop Hill would have been, at best, a barely break-even proposition.


















Fighting and dying uselessly on battlefields generated bitter enough headlines in newspapers. Buying tickets to movies enacting it made for bad commercial medicine. To say that Pork Chop Hill was A Name That Has Come To Mean Heroism and Greatness (as with the ad at top) was courting disappointment and word-of-mouth backlash. People didn’t go to theatres to see America lose wars. Pork Chop Hill’s believable march toward final reel defeat was not served well by a last-minute rescue more the device of earlier filmmakers less committed to truth. Korea had been a mess without satisfactory resolution and Hollywood never trafficked well in ambiguity over who came off the victor. Newer and more diabolical devices of war made for arresting highlights though, and reviewers noticed. A loudspeaker facing the battlefield allows the Red Chinese to undermine troop morale with non-stop attempts at brainwashing, something that evidently went on during the Korea conflict but had so far not been utilized in films. It’s a spooky effect reminiscent of wounded soldiers crying for help in Objective, Burma and Sands Of Iwo Jima that turn out to be Japanese laying in wait for would-be rescuers. The idea of politics as impediment to victory is inherently frustrating to audiences there to see action, another commercial reality that may have entered into Melville’s decision to abandon director Milestone’s original concept of crosscutting between Panmunjom and Pork Chop. The film appears critical of American foreign policy on the one hand, and supportive of hamstrung warring on the other. Because of what they did, millions live in freedom today, says reassuring narrator Peck at the fadeout, but Pork Chop Hill’s overall message is a mixed one at best. We see virtually no Koreans from the North or South. Attackers are at all times the Red Chinese. Milestone’s way with battle scenes is exemplary, his sure hand at staging carnage being Pork Chop Hill’s outstanding feature. War films find me with uncanny accuracy, said the director; I don’t go seeking them.






















Exhibition worked out a crafty stunt for selling Pork Chop Hill. I found it applied in nearby Winston-Salem and at our own Liberty Theatre (ads shown here). "Vets of Pork Chop" were invited in both instances to attend the show as guests of the theatre, their "official identification" good for a pair of free ducats. Sounded like a good and generous gesture, until I read that of the 135 combatants on Pork Chop, only 28 survived. What were chances of any of these showing up at the Liberty or Carolina? Pork Chop Hill’s afterlife was spent mostly on television. The film became part of a fifteen-title package sold by United Artists to ABC in January 1962. The network looked to compete with NBC’s successful primetime Saturday movies with its own Sunday night counterpart. Features would replace two struggling ABC series, Bus Stop and Adventures In Paradise, beginning April 8, 1962. Included among the initial group from UA was Witness For The Prosecution, I Want To Live, Man Of The West, and for broadcast on April 29, Pork Chop Hill. It was a fast track from there to syndication as part of UA’s Showcase Of The 60’s package, announced three months later for availability in the Fall.




Monday, March 22, 2010




Book Choice --- A Song In The Dark





I’ve been having a wine and cheese couple of weeks in the company of wonderful things recently out in print and DVD. Their having arrived together was a happy confluence for this digger into early musicals. First the book. A Song In The Dark is a newly published second edition of Richard Barrios’ 1995 volume about talking-singing-dancing’s conquest of movies. It was acclaimed then, and thanks to new and updated chapters, is even better now. There's no more informed study on this subject anywhere, but Barrios is never stolid or academic. In fact, he’s the wittiest observer of classic film I’ve come across since Bill Everson left us. There are out loud laughs all through this book. Barrios is dead accurate to history and scrupulous with insider revelations, much of which was new to me. He’s also a long time film collector and knows pot-holed routes these negatives traveled as well as current preservation status of each. Coverage is detailed but not dull. I remembered the 1995 edition as among best film books of that decade. This one pretty much cinches Top Placement for the naughts. That happy confluence I mentioned was Warner Archive’s release of a brace of seriously early musicals that play merrily along with reading A Song In The Dark. You can widen out to DVD’s others have issued, as Barrios covers every talking tune-fest between 1927 and 1934. My best fun comes of reading about films just after watching, so all this falls under heading of time most pleasurably spent, and I’d recommend the parlay to anyone who has interest in this most fascinating of movie eras.
















Some will blanch at primitivism of stone-aged musicals, but for me they work precisely because most were banished to obscurity and are somewhat disreputable today, even among classic followers. So many play lumpen and shapeless. It’s as though musicals spent those first several years struggling to give birth, only to miscarry time and again. Owners shamed for having made them drowned many in the river. Few genres starting out require so much of our patience, yet sheer perversity among many of us treasure these relics for just that. Sometimes I prefer feet that clomp instead of tap. Maybe Hollywood was too soon getting slick at their musicals, for visible strain at putting on shows is an endearing trait of earliest ones, the very edge an industry would smooth off to a polished, if duller, sheen. I’m for transporting back to sensibilities of patrons seeing musicals first-run, when the very idea of screen song was revolutionary. What was it really like sitting before Vitaphones fresh out of the box? Being numb to technological innovation, it’s hard for us to imagine standing up to cheer a projected image, yet 1927 audiences did … and often. The earliest talkies are best enjoyed when we channel empathy to folks who were there and amazed when all of it was new. Many personalities that mastered talkies saw fame redoubled, but none more so than Al Jolson. Some might be surprised to learn there are still Jolson fan groups around. Eighty years ago, it seems everyone was a Jolie fan. To watch The Singing Fool and Say It With Songs is to wonder how tastes then could differ so radically from our own. Both were smash hits in 1928-29. I’d wager most of our grandparents had song sheets of Sonny Boy. Part of Al’s success was novelty of sound, but most derived from his virtual leap off a singing screen into audience laps. This was performance 3-D without glasses. Jolson was applauded to a point where he thought more was always more, with subtlety better left to talent his inferior (which for Al was everyone else in show business). For all his public’s huzzahs, the man was not unreasonable thinking himself a god among entertainers.

























The Singing Fool and Say It With Songs were seldom revived like The Jazz Singer. Their stake in history was more economic than aesthetic. Beyond the fact it was a phenomenal commercial hit, much more so than The Jazz Singer, The Singing Fool is forgotten, Say It With Songs even more so. Warners made both available in a laser disc box of Jolsons back in the eighties. Now they’re part of the Archive Collection, sans remastering. Why throw good money after bad? TCM stays generally clear of Jolson for apprehension over blackface routines spotted through most of his pics. That plus severely dated content leaves them scarcely missed. Al frankly looks more natural blacked up. His face otherwise seems bleached out to me. Maybe it’s distressed negatives at fault. You expect musical stars to play happy and convey it to us, but Warners saw Al as tragic troubadour done in by wiles of women, with sickbeds a persistent last stop for cherub offspring. Say It With Tears might have been a more apt title for that 1929 offering, for here again was Jolson fielding heartbreak. Is this what finally turned audiences away? The Singing Fool’s popularity was endorsement of Al as tragedian. His "Little Pal" was Davey Lee, adorable scamp of every parent’s dream. What was it about Davey’s public that liked him best dead or dying? Infants and toddlers were more vulnerable in those days. Maybe watching one pass on movie screens helped ward off such visitation in real life. Did make-believe surrogates like Davey Lee keep real-life Grim Reapers at bay? The Singing Fool fairly wallows in its ocean of grief. Jolson can barely get out his final (and at least third) reprise of Sonny Boy without collapsing onstage. Of millions watching in 1928, I wonder how many had lost a toddling family member. Enough to make The Singing Fool and Sonny Boy twin smashes, that’s sure. Sometimes entertainment strikes a public’s nerve in ways barely calculated by makers. As risible as we find much of The Singing Fool and Say It With Songs, they did have meaning and affect for a generation that lacked health care advantages we enjoy today, and ham-fisted though he was, Al Jolson spoke to grim chance that stalked his audience and loved ones at home.
Richard Barrios will appear and present a program of early musical highlights this week at the Syracuse Cinefest.




Thursday, March 18, 2010




Among The Underappreciated: Gordon Douglas





I looked around for interviews with Gordon Douglas after deciding to post on him. There weren’t many. Even though the director lived until 1993, he doesn’t seem to have been approached much. That strikes me as odd for a name I recognized from moviegoing very early on. During the mid-sixties, you could see a new film Gordon Douglas directed, like Way, Way Out or In Like Flint, then come home and watch innumerable Our Gang shorts bearing his credit. Asked to random name a movie director at age twelve, I might have mentioned Douglas. There’s still not enough attention paid to craftsmen like him. It seems men who got jobs done on time and budget were valued more during their lifetimes than today. Could that be a consequence of modern historians’ own inexperience with deadlines/payrolls? Douglas and his brethren shoveled movies into a furnace that was the studio system and kept locomotives at steam without regards to artistic fulfillment beyond a living wage. They were happy enough being efficient and making the best of resources at hand. I did uncover a chat between Gordon Douglas and writer Ronald L. Davis in an excellent collection of interviews entitled Just Making Movies. The director comes across here as the professional he was; modest, but pleased with a career he recognized for aspects of luck and timing that enabled it, and aware throughout that to make a good picture, it’s got to be on paper first.





Just for instance, I don’t know how much of Them!’s success we can credit to Douglas, but suspect lots more than he’s been given. Same goes for a dozen or so others I’ve enjoyed a lot but haven’t recognized properly as his. Two were recently out from Warner Archives. They are Mara Maru and The Iron Mistress. Both have long been pets of mine for fanship with Errol Flynn and Alan Ladd. Watching them again last week, I’ve about decided Gordon Douglas was the last of virtuoso in-house Warner directors. Is virtuoso too generous a word? Heaven forfend my going overboard for a director missing off everyone’s pantheon list, but I’m for nominating Douglas natural successor to Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh as top kick craftsman among WB helmers laboring there while steam drained out of that studio’s postwar engine. So many fine technicians were reaching their summit in tandem with Hollywood’s descent. You can say on one hand that Mara Maru is a nothing product for a star in collapse, but look again at what lighting, mood, and tempo salvaged from said ruins. Here is a gemstone of the expertise we associate with a cherished system, all the more endearing because now it’s 1952 and so much of that wonderfully able talent will soon be let go. Douglas directs Mara Maru and The Iron Mistress with brio. His compositions are not unlike those of Curtiz at full tilt. Errol Flynn enters a bar from our lowered vantage and the shot continues beyond his stride through the place and well into dialogue that follows. Later when he’s pursued by heavies, we see Flynn in moody foreground and opponents distant in a nicely highlighted doorway. If you’ve watched The Iron Mistress, I needn’t remind you of its exemplary knife to the death combat staged in a completely darkened room, an action peak to challenge Walsh running wide open. I’d like to think Douglas, being of a second generation seeking careers after movies discovered sound (born 1907), spent time observing, and sought advise from, veterans like Curtiz and Walsh who’d preceded him into the industry by a considerable margin.



















I’ll concede that Douglas worked mostly at absorbing Warner overhead, keeping expensive staff engaged in microwaved star vehicles to relieve buyer’s remorse the company felt for paying these actors so much. Mara Maru was mostly about throwing meat to distribution lions and getting something out of Flynn for weekly checks he cashed. They were through putting serious effort into this star’s vehicles, thus staffers like Gordon Douglas took megaphones wielded by Curtiz and Walsh back when Errol mattered more. Seen-it-all Walsh offered sage advice to his younger colleague … Let me tell you something, Gordy. There’ll be a script on your front lawn every morning. That was less jesting than a caution from Walsh, for directors on Warner’s clock were expected to have said script digested and ready to disgorge on Monday morning. Those who remained on payroll understood better than to argue over merits of commodity scheduled to ship within the month. Douglas figured he was lucky to put over a good one out of three, knowing that renewal of studio pacts was based entirely on profits generated by a past year’s work. A look over his WB credits for the 50’s decade he was there reveals a solid list I’ll watch again (and maybe again) before I’m done: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, I Was A Communist For The FBI, Come Fill The Cup, Mara Maru, Charge At Feather River, Them!, three more Alan Ladds after The Iron Mistress, Bombers B-52, and a trio with Clint Walker (I’m just waiting for WB Archive to release Yellowstone Kelly so I can post on it). There’s more, but long lists are wearying other than to convey a consistent quality output such as Douglas’ was.







































I particularly appreciate directors who were in it from Day One. Gordon Douglas began child acting for Maurice Costello at Brooklyn’s Vitagraph studio, then migrated to odd jobs and gagging at Hal Roach. He said later that ever dollar he ever earned came from show biz. Douglas’ level of experience and competence was something he probably took for granted. That’s what makes interviews with men of that era so refreshing. They never have to reassure themselves or us. Douglas was sanguine about grunt work he performed at RKO in the forties, directing as best anyone could the intended comic antics of The Great Gildersleeve and an increasingly desperate-for-laffs Eddie Cantor. Plum assignments were extended, then ruthlessly withdrawn. The director told interviewer Davis of one lunch date at which he found out that George Marshall was starting a choice project that had been promised to Douglas. Such was life among this second tier of industry artisans. To be a "program director" was to know disappointment, yet ones built to last like Gordon Douglas took the bitter and ended up relishing far more of the sweet. He worked past contemporaries through most of the seventies and bowed out only when health considerations foreclosed further effort. My impression of Douglas was that he got along in large part for getting along. A congenial relationship with Frank Sinatra put Douglas behind the camera of five of that star’s vehicles, something of a record among directors for handling such a mercurial presence. There was also Elvis, Bob Hope, and Jerry Lewis. I would think all of these shared positive impressions of Douglas and got word out he knew his business. Some could argue Douglas was a pushover for spoiled talent run amok, though I don’t think financial backers would have abided that for long. Maybe it was guiding such fluff toward the end that diminished Douglas’ status and justifies our ignoring him now. The DVD release of a good ten of his from Warners, with promise of more to come, will hopefully get this director some of the recognition he’s got coming.




Monday, March 15, 2010




Alice In DVD-Land





Ann peeked in the other night while I was watching Universal’s Alice In Wonderland DVD and said it looked grotesque. That’s sorta like an endorsement for me. So many kid pictures today are self-consciously "dark." Back in 1933, that was more an unintended consequence. Even cartoons then were creepy. I’ve looked at photos of youngster crowds waiting outside to see things like the 1930 Tom Sawyer and they appear primed enough for mean reality inside. Grotesque for us was just life for them. Whatever Wonderlands they dreamed of might not suit children so well today. Still they look orderly in their drab-wear. Girls all wore dresses and some of the boys turned out in knickers. The luckier ones had wool overcoats. Alice In Wonderland was made for them, not us. The new Tim Burton remake won’t play to a handful that ever read Lewis Carroll’s book. 1933 audiences likely knew that source lots better. People read more then before television (and more movies) came along to debase them. Paramount tried keeping faith with Carroll and even duplicated as best they could Sir John Tenniel illustrations that accompanied early editions. Remakes can sometimes justify themselves just for instigating release of a better early version of the property. Would Universal ever have gotten around to Alice were it not for the new one whose coattails this DVD rides? To my mind, it should be others way around, but I wasn’t among those wearing 3-D glasses these past weekends when Burton’s Alice opened to stellar grosses. Charlotte Henry, there are less of us to champion you, but a light will always burn in Greenbriar’s window for your Alice and all the grotesqueries that come with her.



















Alice In Wonderland was the treat Paramount put into children’s stockings for Christmas 1933, and object of a campaign massive even by today’s standards. Whoever was around then might still remember drum beating for this one. Trade ads went on for pages delineating the tie-ins. Paramount had trained selling guns on kids before and obviously it worked. Their Tom Sawyer spawned Huckleberry Finn the following year. Skippy begat Sooky. By 1933 and Alice In Wonderland, the machine was sophisticated to levels I’ll bet Disney aspired to when he began organizing the Snow White campaign in 1937. I was lucky enough to come across an Alice pressbook recently. Some of its content decorates this post. Paramount’s merchandising intensity took me back to age seven when the 1961 Babes In Toyland was invading our collective consciousness. The deuce of it is Alice was 1933 when I understood most folks were down on luck and had not disposable dollars for Alice dolls, tea services, soap cakes, play sets, and jewelry. I’m beginning to wonder if that so-called Great Depression was all it was cracked up to be. Movie studios obviously had easier access to public institutions then. Paramount infiltrated schools nationwide via co-ops with The National Council Of Teachers of English which culminated in a contest conducted by instructors to make pupils Alice-aware. Four million school-agers were said to have gotten the memo to see Alice In Wonderland. They will be advised to do that by their teachers, said a confident Paramount.



































Now here’s where history gets cruel. Alice made a big enough noise for holiday 1933 as to alert Hal Roach and MGM to possibilities of a next Yuletide’s Alice with but slight variation. She was still Charlotte Henry, only this time it was Bo-Peep the twenty-year old (by then 21) enacted, and instead of Wonderland for Christmas 1934, we’d get Toyland. Difference lay primarily in fact that Babes In Toyland still plays and is remembered, while Alice In Wonderland might just as well have fallen down that rabbit hole referenced in its narrative. Alice had the all-star cast, but few were recognizable beneath disguises. Babes was Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy plus music. Alice fast-tracked to oblivion after general release. I found no indication of a reissue. Babes saw rebirth as March Of The Wooden Soldiers and filled theatres clear into the seventies. There was also that TV station in New York repeating it each Thanksgiving as a holiday perennial. I doubt if a fraction as many people saw Alice In Wonderland over the last forty years. Until this DVD release, it would not have been untoward to call Paramount’s a lost film. Only it wasn’t their property anymore. Universal had owned Alice since then-parent MCA assumed ownership of the film in March 1958 among 700 pre-48 Paramount features. Alice was for a half-century very much misplaced in syndication’s shuffle. We had one station down here that ran it during the sixties, though Channel 8 took greater interest in Dialing for Dollars, sports breaks, and other such disruptions of their movie’s progress. A dedicated package MCA put together in the early seventies, called Comedy Film Festival I, combined twenty-six titles that comprised most of what they had of W.C. Fields, Mae West, and The Marx Brothers bearing Paramount logos (and occasion for which they finally cleared Fields’ You’re Telling Me for broadcast). Alice In Wonderland is clearly an odd bird among this lot, being that Fields has relatively little to do in it. I was grateful to finally (if barely) see AIW on Johnson City, Tennessee’s remote Channel 11, but had not again until Universal’s recent arrival. Have I mentioned lately how lucky we are to have these DVD’s?






























It’s no good arguing Alice In Wonderland is a good picture. Not a patch on Babes In Toyland and certainly no threat to the primacy of The Wizard Of Oz among 30’s fantasies, Alice still merits respect for sheer bungled perversity. Credited names like Joseph L. Mankiewicz, William Cameron Menzies, and Dimitri Tiomkin (one of his first scores) guarantee it won’t be altogether forgotten, and theirs are just names behind the camera. A 76-minute running time minimizes fatigue. I spent none of those clock-watching. It’s hard to completely muck up any oldie dealing with imaginative content. All-stars of the cast are well concealed in weird chunks of plaster and such. I couldn’t reconcile his costume or voice with Cary Grant, and Uncle Bill indeed went to waste encased in a giant egg. I read in James Curtis’ book that Fields was loath to play Humpty Dumpty. Child visitors escorted to the set found him drunk and incoherent in the oversized get-up. He was promised wide exposure for accepting the part, and indeed a lot more patrons saw Alice In Wonderland than would have gone to a Fields-starring vehicle. Lovers of things twisted can luxuriate in set decorations Paramount never got to use again. Didn’t Disney come pretty close to doing his own Alice featuring Mary Pickford as companion to cartoon Wonderlanders? Could a 30’s marketplace have absorbed both? Walt did release an all animated AIW in 1951 with rough edges of the source material smoothed to a genial gloss (note in this ad how all the characters wear big non-threatening smiles). That returned a disappointing $2.4 million in domestic rentals and became the first Walt Disney cartoon feature to play television (on ABC’s Disneyland series in November 1954). There was a mid-seventies theatrical revival launching this Alice In Wonderland to new popularity as a "head" movie. A college playdate I remember emphasized the film’s animated caterpillar smoking a hookah pipe, with advertising art maintaining a distinctly "pop" flavor. Google searching further enlightened me as to modern uses of the hookah. One helpful site explained how to acquire my own and load it up with cannabis. Maybe Hollywood overlooked an ideal opportunity to do a full-blown Alice remake during that late 60’s/70’s era when audiences were most receptive to tripping out with its fantastic themes and settings (and no, I haven’t forgotten there was 1976's Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy).
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