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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Men On Secret Mission

Cockleshell Heroes (1955-56) Turns Tide Of The War

Warwick was a British firm headed by Irving Allen and pre-James Bond Albert R. Broccoli. They did big-scale actioners meant to compete with a best the Yanks could deliver. War themes were a staple, big names lured from our shores to headline. So far there'd been Alan Ladd in several, Victor Mature for Safari and Zarak, plus oddball of a sci-fi, The Gamma People, with Paul Douglas. The big Cockleshell name was director and star Jose Ferrer, riding a career crest and regarded a triple, if not more, threat, for whatever project he took on, the Jack Buchanan character in MGM's The Bandwagon said to have spoofed him. The story was fact-based, impossible mission stuff, grim outcome from which Warwick doesn't shrink. There weren't a lot of war pix where objective was achieved at cost of nearly all personnel, as here, but it's that integrity that elevates Cockleshell Heroes. Did Robert Aldrich observe and take note for his later The Dirty Dozen? The latter seems a remake in many ways: comic-flavored training and war games in a first half, dead serious penetration of enemy territory for the second. Trevor Howard acquits well as Ferrer's opposite number; they clash and eventually join in detailing the raid. Eager Brit thesps don uniform, some to join Hammer ranks in years to come: John Van Eyssen (Horror Of Dracula) is among volunteers, and Christopher Lee commands a submarine rendezvous. The Cockleshell Heroes is best seen wide, as on Sony's HD channel.

Monday, April 16, 2018

10 ... 20 ... 60 Years Ahead Of Its Time ...

Have We Caught Up With Beat The Devil Yet?

Shot in early 1953, but released in March 1954, this was sold by braver exhibs in terms of black-and-white flatness we should celebrate --- a deliberately old-fashioned show amidst shape-shifting screens. Beat The Devil would have been better off had it been more like the thrillers it proposed to spoof. The satire was obscure enough to need helpful narration confirming that indeed this was a lark; otherwise you could go the whole thing figuring Beat The Devil a plain misfire. Humphrey Bogart tagged it for exactly that, resenting his money wasted on such smug self-indulgence. The star spent personal funds to accommodate friend and Devil's director John Huston, who'd handed Bogart his 50's triumph The African Queen and the Academy Award it yielded for an actor too-long typed as urban tough-guy. Beat The Devil then, was a hiccup among post-Warner Bogarts that were uniformly successful otherwise, and it would be after HB's death before a meaningful cult would form around he and Huston's "shaggy dog" spoof (that usually a critic's designation for pics everyone but the public will like).

Origin story of Beat The Devil has been given two ways. One version has John Huston being given the source book and imploring Bogart to invest and star in it, but Bogart told LOOK magazine in September 1953 that someone had lent him the novel and he said to Huston, "Let's buy it." Bogart added that he "raised the dough" to make Beat The Devil. On the last detail, there seems to be no argument. In fact, Bogart would lose something upward of $450,000, a 1953 equivalent to four million today. This certainly would not have been loss to laugh off. Location shooting was in Ravello, Italy, where cast/crew spent seven weeks, according to Variety, much of that partying and writing just ahead of the camera. Europe being a social mecca for tax-dodging Hollywoodites of the day (it was claimed you could duck the federal tab by working fourteen straight months offshore). There were many old friends who'd link up far from home. Director pals of Huston visited Ravello --- William Wyler and Howard Hawks sighted among passers-through. David Selznick gifted the company with a ping-pong table to pass idle hours, his wife Jennifer Jones among the "international" cast. Home movies were made of this vacation enjoyed largely on Bogart's money, fascinating to watch because they are in color, unlike the feature.

What may have started off as serio-comic became altogether farce as writer Truman Capote joked up dialogue and Huston got into spirit of fun. The cast was less convinced as words were handed them right before scenes to be taken. Wiser heads saw the hangover to come once Huston or whoever assembled the mess. Fullest awakening came as the director did his editing in August 1953. Plan had been to get Beat The Devil into release for September, triad of Huston, Gina Lollobrigida, and Bogart to thump the show with personal apps during July-August-September. That plan had to be scotched after participants, and distributor United Artists, got a look at Huston's finished product. Beat The Devil seemed not fish nor fowl, and sloppily made in the bargain (deliberate? It looks as though Huston was emulating imports that he, and others, admired). Fall '53 was also the coming of The Robe and others of widened screen that would render old-style square frames obsolete. Every month that Beat The Devil stayed in the stall would make it seem more of an antique when audiences finally saw it.

Emergency measures would have to be applied to put the film in releasable shape. Bogart invited a director panel for advice toward salvage. One can imagine polite silence when lights went up. Trouble among both insiders, and civilians who got a peek, was not knowing if Beat The Devil was straight melodrama or a send-up. To hopeful rescue came husband-wife editing team of Gene and Marjorie Fowler. They would reminisce about their time on Beat The Devil for a 1964 Variety article which was part of the trade's thirty-first anniversary issue. The Fowlers had been shown the film and were told that it had been distributed during fall 1953 in England and "was doing very poorly." Beat The Devil would have to be "saved" by the editing team to have any hope of success in US markets. "We decided that the simplest solution was to let the audience in on the fact this was a comedy," trouble being the Fowlers having access only to a cut negative, and a final dubbed track, essentially what patrons were then seeing in the UK. "We started by transposing some scenes, eliminating certain story points, and punching up others with inserts. Then we took the tail end of the picture and put it up at the beginning, telling the story in flashback form. We opened on a close shot of four somber faced gentlemen marching along purposefully, while a new narration, spoken by Bogart, stated, Here are the four most successful criminals of Europe." The Fowlers were satisfied that their work helped transform Beat The Devil  into what they said became "an esoteric classic."

Reshuffle of the narrative was accompanied by censor call for "some snipping" to certain views of Gina Lollobrigida, said Army Archerd in his 11-18-53 column for Variety. The trade reported two days later that Bogart had given UA "the right to lease (Beat The Devil ) to TV if it doesn't make the grade theatrically." Deal further called for Bogart to receive "15% per run" in the event such option was taken (as things turned out, Beat The Devil would not appear on television until fall of 1964). Toward agreed-upon March 1954 release, United Artists set simultaneous opening at 68 theatres in the New York metropolitan area, a bid less to beat any devil than beat word-of-mouth which was expected to be bad. Some initial dates did OK, but sure enough, the smell got out. Dorothy Kilgallen's Screenland column laid a haymaker on Beat The Devil --- customers, she said, "gasped" at the previewed film, saying that the players "couldn't possibly have given such performances unless they were drunk, drugged, or didn't give a darn ..." Exhibitor comments agreed that Bogart had let down his public. Part of trouble was UA grossly misleading audiences with promise of "Adventure At Its Boldest --- Bogart At His Best," accompanied by the star laying a sledgehammer right on villainy, and fondling a falling-out-of-her-gown Lollobrigida. To promote Beat The Devil as sly farce would likely have been ruinous, however, as such content was not what Bogart's following was known to embrace. Whatever the missteps, Beat The Devil would be, along with In A Lonely Place, the only Humphrey Bogart vehicle during whole of the 50's to earn less than a million in domestic rentals. $975,132 from 8,891 engagements was plain disaster, but not one that would come as surprise to those who had scurried to make something commercially viable out of Beat The Devil.

One-Sheet For The 1964 Reissue

Pitching Beat The Devil To TV Stations For Fall 1964

Alternate Style For The 1964 Syndicated Pitch
Bogart sold his Beat The Devil interest to Columbia in February 1955, along with his ownership in The African Queen and all the Santana titles produced by that company in which he was a partner. Beat The Devil would become the object of a very interesting reissue experiment in 1964. Columbia by then had an art subsidiary called "Royal Films International" to handle their elevated stuff, and Royal put together a fresh campaign for Beat The Devil as a film "Ten Years Ahead Of Its Time." That having been ten years before 1964, Royal figured our greater sophistication had caught up with Beat The Devil and now was time to finally appreciate it. The film, said Variety (4-23-64), would be "getting a strictly high-brow treatment" via bookings through 36 venues nationwide that were controlled by the Art Theatre Guild chain. A New York run at the 5th Avenue Cinema lasted six weeks and took $30,900, which was awfully good for a 273 seater. Variety attributed Beat The Devil "comeback" success to an "expanded market for the so-called "sophisticated" pix, new sales approach, and that "Bogie" craze now booming after grassrooting in colleges." The revival would play out as Columbia-Screen Gems put Beat The Devil into a feature package for fall 1964 syndication to TV, where it was alternately marketed to buyer stations as an "offbeat ... comedy classic," or Bogart the "International Swindler" up to old tricks.

I've watched Beat The Devil again, and as with past viewings, have liked it more each time. It's not that I finally "get" the humor, as frankly that still eludes me, but as a curiosity and record of what Euro influence had done to Huston, nothing equals Beat The Devil. This was no movie for hopeless provincials we Americans were. Bogart in straight-up crime fighter mode (Deadline USA, The Enforcer) was what Yanks preferred, though The African Queen demonstrated tolerance for offbeat path, so long as comedy and romance were served. Bogart is certainly not flattered by the camera. And donning ascots?? We realize suddenly why it was necessary for Bogie to be under studio protection where he could be carefully photographed. The African Queen got by because his "Charlie Allnutt" was an extreme character whose sweat and grime enhanced the part. For Beat The Devil, Bogart is assigned to suavity and Gina Lollobrigida for onscreen wife, plus Jennifer Jones with whom he'll steal kisses, none of which an emaciated HB seems fit for. There was an auto crack-up on location that sliced his tongue, broke out some teeth, for which he'd have stitches and rush order for new bridge work. There is a scene in Beat The Devil where Bogart's badly swollen lip is clear in evidence. He would frankly look and comport better two years later in his final film, The Harder They Fall.

Beat The Devil Makes The Art House in Cleveland For Spring 1964

Jennifer Jones came off best of the cast for me. Someone told her later that this would be the picture she'd be remembered for, and JJ was non-plussed. Everyone associated with Beat The Devil would write it off as a disaster. The inevitable cult formed around coffee tables in university towns (Harvard's Brattle Theatre an early champion), and revivals sold Beat The Devil as mockery it only fitfully was. Bogart festivals had less luck because his legion wanted straight dope of a Maltese Falcon, not a movie that would ridicule it. There is lately a "Director Cut" that loses the narration and has added footage, essentially what was shown in Europe and the UK over latter months of 1953 while UA, Bogart, et al, struggled to fix Beat The Devil for stateside consumption. This "restoration" has played revival screens but is not yet available on home disc. It did, however, turn up unexpectedly, and most welcome, on a late night TCM broadcast, so we can at last see Beat The Devil as John Huston presumably intended it.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Grisly Leap For The 60's

The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962) Is Head-Start On Tasteless Trend

This was for years tendered to me as more rotten than it turned out to be., shorthand describe being "the one with a head in the brownie pan." Actually, Brain's a gory mess, much more explicit than '62 politeness would otherwise dictate. One guy has an arm ripped off by a mutant and another gets flesh chewed from his neck, so where indeed to draw lines? A next couple years would answer with Blood Feast, then The Flesh Eaters. There was Brain's wide-eye dismembered head on the cover of Horror Monsters #8, and who wasn't mesmerized by that? From such an image is genre folklore born. Made at leanest cost, lab scenes comprise much of footage, and were staged, allegedly, in a NY hotel basement. The Brain That Wouldn't Die belies its title in that title femme wants to die, but can't thanks to experimentation of a fiancĂ© who yanked her noggin out of a car on fire. Previous victims dot the labscape, doc assist with a claw hand, plus aforesaid mutant, the latter a wow once out of his closet and getting even. There's trolling too among strip joints from which a wholly unmotivated catfight ensues, all quite unwholesome, and I'm surprised even Jim and Sam picked up Brain for distribution. The film's producers must have made them a virtual gift of the thing.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Vic's A Fall Guy For RKO

Gambling House (1950) From Noir's Lower Drawer

You think going in it's noir, what with grey suit Victor Mature with Bill Bendix in murderous pursuit, but no, Gambling House is Vic in pursuit of US citizenship, which he gets with fresh-face support of Terry Moore. Was this another of Howard Hughes' kooky ideas? Someone needs to do a Rorschach test on Hughes using RKO pics he meddled in, as this one crawls with tips to his eccentricity, if not obsessions. Mature is a born-bad sort who learns to love his adoptive country once feds threaten to expel him from it. Vic's performing works wonders for its utter relaxation, the actor having self-deprecated much of what he did, even though lots said Mature worked harder than met the eye. Gambling House isn't invited to noir parties thanks to cheery resolution of most issues (save Bendix's); you'd not be amiss pairing it with Robert Mitchum's Yule one-off Holiday Affair. Darkness we expect from Gambling House becomes instead a plea for civic responsibility ... so how uncool is that?

Monday, April 09, 2018

What Got Laughs and Warmed Hearts In 1930

When Most Memorable Pick Was Hands Down Min and Bill

The number of films that were truly beloved is finite. One of them was Min and Bill. I say was because those who loved it are either a hundred years old or gone. Min and Bill earned back over five times its cost. People kept going time and again. Whenever MGM did a retro reel, Min and Bill was there. I found revivals from as late as 1963 at mainstream venues. Min and Bill was of sort that old people remembered fondly and talked about, even as television largely ducked it in favor of later, slicker titles from the MGM group. It had drama plus comedy, "bittersweet" a term observers at the time used. Some, including Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times, called it "unsavory," which wasn't inapt, because Min and Bill does not shrink from sleaze, at least as that term was understood in 1930. Balance was restored, however, by brilliant trouping of Marie Dressler, that "grand old fire horse of the screen" as Norma Shearer called her when presenting 1931's Best Actress award to Dressler for Min and Bill.

MGM is often misunderstood as a company for which sole pursuit was empty glamour, beautiful people achieving what others of us could not. This, of course, does not take Dressler into account, or Wallace Beery, the two of them by far a most profitable team for Leo despite the mere pair they did together (three when you count Dinner At Eight, but they didn't interact so much in that one). Dressler died in 1934 as the most popular actress on US screens, so imagine a public's shock and grief, a similar response, I'd guess, to the loss of John Bunny back in 1915. These were less movie stars than family members, or at the least intense identification figures for an invisible army of plain folk who'd never enter rooms on the arm of a Clark Gable or Joan Crawford. MGM would spend the rest of a Studio Era eager to replicate Marie Dressler, but never came close. No other "fire horse" could deliver heart with the laughs, none for that matter approached her for humor, though the heaven knows, a Marjorie Main tried in vehicle after misbegotten vehicle where she and Beery tried recapturing glory that had passed with Dressler.

Wallace Beery was either a genius player years ahead of his time or no fit company for anyone to work with. He would show up with vaguest idea of what a scene was about and then wing  dialogue to distress of those who had taken trouble to memorize words and chalk marks. Those seasoned enough like Dressler could cope, plus she'd bring him to heel with cajole, then threats, in event he misbehaved. What Beery knew, as audiences certainly did, was how authentic he sounded, despite, or because of, disdain for scripts. Was it not caring, or supreme confidence? Based on Beery's eternity at performing, I'd say the latter. He had once trained elephants, worked for Sennett, then scooped a career out of silents as a heavy, or goofball, or even femme-dresser. I don't know who could have intimidated a man with background like this. Certainly no actor or executive at MGM. His roaring success just made Beery more intractable. I watch him with pleasure because he never does the expected. Whatever writers wrote was a first thing he'd discard. There's a scene near the beginning of Min and Bill where Beery says "Brush up on your minature golf" as Dressler departs the frame. That's minature, not miniature. The line is from left of field at the least, probably Beery in recall of a putting course he drove by that morning on way into Culver (midget golf a major fad in 1930). Anyhow, I'd submit Frances Marion (credited scenarist) wrote that line about like pigs flew. Yes --- Wallace Beery is my idea of acting genius.

Good as Beery was, it was Marie Dressler who spread icing on Min and Bill cake. She could pull a guffaw, then tears, with merest expression. Dressler was unapologetically broad, a vaudeville sensibility recorded on film to forever-after memorialize that style of performing. Dressler had the advantage, which can't be taught, of a really lived-in face. She had scaled to an earlier century top, got blacklisted when she joined a strike of chorus girls, then sunk to near-being a housekeeper for hire, this on eve of rescue by friend Frances Marion, who wrote parts for Dressler in late silent-early talkies at MGM. Anna Christie re-lit the fire horse and led directly to Min and Bill, a first that was customized for a Dressler comeback. She went meteoric from this to baffle an industry that thought film stars had to be pretty, or at least presentable. Starring vehicles after Min and Bill were all hits, each valuable for Dressler alone, some even better for company she worked with. Two unfortunately are locked out for expired story rights and haven't been shown for years: Christopher Bean and Caught Short. I'll bet both are winners, but will we live long enough to confirm?

Min and Bill is a rough rhinestone of an early talkie. There is little of Metro polish about it. Waterfront location was done at San Pedro. There are two full-out slapstick portions that got word-of-mouth and made patrons come back. Min and Bill would be an antecedent for It Happened One Night and others that inspired repeat viewings. A centerpiece, to be excerpted for decades to come, was Dressler chasing Beery around a cramped room and smashing furniture plus bric-a-brac over him. This is man-woman combat played full-out, and you wonder at moments if she might really kill him. It all goes on for minutes to what I'm sure was continuous 1930-31 roars (Min and Bill a late in '30 release). Heart-tug comes of "sea cow" Dressler's affection for ne'er-do-well Beery, then her sacrifice for adopted child Dorothy Jordan. Not selling out to a cheery ending gave Min and Bill an integrity harder to come by in conventional pics, Dressler's final close-up a lift as well as source of pathos. She enables happiness for others at cost to herself,  she and we OK with the bulls-eye outcome. A finish calibrated so well as this was rare, remains so, and always pays big at cash windows. Here was a rabbit Hollywood forever chased, but seldom caught. Min and Bill is available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Was Charlie's Wife Worth A Ticket Purchase?

"Mrs. Charlie Chaplin's" Latest Comes To Cleveland

Mildred Harris was Charlie Chaplin's first wife. She may have wished later not to have been. Mildred was a teenager when she wed, and the couple had a child that died in infancy. After the split, Mildred starred in movies, lots of them, which we can barely judge because most are missing. It's assumed Mildred was less an actress than mere ex-spouse of the eternal tramp, but who's to know with so much of evidence gone? Louis Mayer produced a few of her features. Charlie accused him of exploiting the Mildred Harris Chaplin name and L.B. gave him a sock in the chin. Interesting how often silent movie folk resolved issues with balled fist. So did Mayer and others trade on Mildred's married name? Well, if they didn't, showmen certainly would, as here when Cleveland saw The Inferior Sex at two theatres during April 1920. There's even Charlie himself on one ad, with speculation as to whether Sex's "Perfectly Acted Story" might reflect the estranged couple's private life. Wish we could see for ourselves, but I'd guess The Inferior Sex long ago went to nitrate heaven. For Mildred, there was stardom in silents, support and extra work with sound. She must have been liked (DeMille a notable support), because studios kept her in backgrounds right up to premature passing in 1944, age 42.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

A Cleveland Screen Goes From Big To Biggest

Hunting Down Billy The Kid In Realife

Of things that matter less to humanity every day, here is further worry over how many, if any, US theatres exhibited Billy The Kid in true Realife process, that is, 70mm. Would the Loew's Stillman of Cleveland have simply blown up a standard image and passed it off as epoch-making? Worse frauds were put over in theatres, but this being a Leow's house, home to best and brightest out of MGM, I don't think they would have scammed viewership to that extent. Seeing "miles into the distance" and being able to "almost touch the characters from your seat" was heady promise that no 35mm could fulfill. A number of earliest silent shorts had been filmed on 70mm, but narrower gauge became industry-wide standard, which was our loss, as imagine all of movies viewable on Lawrence Of Arabia terms. Such would knock even 4K into a cocked hat. But back to Billy The Kid --- the Cleveland Plain dealer's review further convinces me that here was real Realife, but note enthusiasm withheld. A blasé lot these 1930 critics were. Greenbriar has earlier visited Billy The Kid, and inquired on other occasion if any 70mm element survives on this King Vidor super-western. If so, I'm for seeing it but quick.
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