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Thursday, September 03, 2015

Swing Has Swung at Fox


Do You Love Me (1946) Looks To Crooner Takeover

An unintended seeing-out of the Swing Era, Do You Love Me (seems there ought to be a question mark at the end of the title, but alas, no) sees Harry James and his big band losing to Dick Haymes in both musical and romantic capacity. Postwar preference was for vocalists, jitterbuggers having grown up and/or changed into uniforms. Swing would slip, and cede besides to crooners like Haymes who had luck of timing, if not talent. That he'd rival Harry James for affection of Maureen O'Hara, and come out a winner, must have seemed foregone conclusion to 1946 viewers gravitating more to voice than brass. Do You Love Me asks us too to choose between classical and pop, a near-even contest for performance time given both. Movies weren't for seeing out old in favor of new, there being room under a big musical tent for all. Yes, it's long hairs and oldsters that go for long-past composing, but plenty that's good was done in past centuries, based on H'wood banners flown here and in then-recent A Song To Remember, where Cornel Wilde and fresh renditions made Chopin dreamy, and jukebox adaptable.


Maureen's a college dean whose starch needs ironing, not just for disdain of modern music, but for hair kept in a bun and specs she insists on wearing. Admitted "wolf" Harry comes on strong and remains so, a tip-off that he'll not prevail, while Dick's the shy guy, an image given Haymes from a Fox start, and soon contradicted by headlines he'd generate offscreen (ducking WWII service, excess tippling, etc.). Forging pic personality from singers and bandleaders was no simple task. James and Haymes had names and sweet sound in back of them, plus habits a problematic equal to rock stars who'd complicate salesmanship a generation later. The two lived large and were governed by nobody. Fans craved both more than movie stars ... who'd read riot acts when they misbehaved? James was reckless with dice and Haymes picked up nickname "Mr. Evil" for conduct among peers. They were great when music-making, however, Do You Love Me wise for confining them to that for bulk of 90 minute run-time.


Fox saw musicals in more dollar than artistry terms. But even MGM was hard-pressed to elevate big band vehicles past level of economic expediency. Hit Parades marched by quickly, after all. Do You Love Me would be directed by Gregory Ratoff, who knew not from pride in work assigned, but ate well for playing hands dealt him. Settings are familiar: isn't the train Maureen rides a same one that accommodated Gene Tierney in a previous year's Leave Her To Heaven? And stage-built garden setting for a last reel recital looks mighty like false foliage used for same purpose in The Gang's All Here. Again, all such was ephemeral. Who at 20th would have dreamed anyone would watch this stuff after 1946? Makes me wonder, in fact, if there were customers beyond myself for Fox's On-Demand DVD released last year, Do You Love Me looking not as we'd wish for, but better than contempt heaped on other oldies by major disc outlets (seen the Kitty transfer from Universal On-Demand? Well, don't. It's lousy).




Monday, August 31, 2015

Tracy-Hepburn Go Dark


Keeper Of The Flame (1942) Evokes Horror and Noir

Easier to ignore when it looked but OK on freevee, Keeper Of The Flame leaps to life thanks to current-streaming HD, a visual knockout and close as Tracy-Hepburn got to doing a horror movie, or at the least, gutsy noir. Keeper Of The Flame is further argument for library titles as reborn thanks to High-Def, giving us chance at long last to see them in something like visual integrity they had when new. Now that more and more are emerging like this, it's maybe time to fresh appraise the lot. I put Keeper Of The Flame among chief beneficiaries of the upgrade; what grabs to start is a whole thing shot indoors, sound stage forest not so petrified since Universal dressed Son Of Frankenstein with dead trees, and boy, does HD show how moodily Flame was designed and lit. When Tracy walks this simulated earth, you expect monsters to hop out. The pic burns would-be intense, but Metro's adapt of a heavy-theme novel was hobbled by censors and a message muddled by, among others, K. Hepburn interfering more than usual along creative line.


The big reveal for a third act is plain from opening, a Great Man lately gone being exposed as Fascist and on verge of US takeover. Tracy and newshounds, of which he's supposed to be most perceptive, should see it coming from youth stood like Bund ralliers in a first scene. ST plays loftier spin on hotshot scribes he did lighter at Fox Film Corp or even MGM in contract beginner days (see The Murder Man); here he speechifies to little Daryl Hickman about enslavement threatening us all. Wartime urgency, of course, made all this more palatable then than now. Like much of Metro on "A" setting, Flame burns twenty minutes longer than needed; let's say it's a bit scorched at the end, what with Spence/Kate trapped in a cabin fire set by a male Mrs. Danvers (Richard Whorf) ... it was '42-suggested that Keeper's third act had gone off rails.


That cabin, by the by, is convenient repository for evidence needed to defame the departed Robert Forrest, him unseen thanks to plunge off a bridge in opener scene. Radio transmitters and world maps in plain sight indicate nationwide siege, and Hepburn's confession confirms an organized Fascist network waiting in wings --- so what happens to all them now that homegrown Mabuse is gone? I saw the face of fascism in my own home, she says, hatred, arrogance, cruelty. That's a sort of dialogue you cope with for watching, but never it mind, Keeper Of The Flame is a looker and well off expected path of Tracy-Hepburn; they never even get together romantically, a good thing as it's all that indoor-for-outdoor artifice and gothic milieu we're here to enjoy. In stunning HD, it's gracious plenty, especially now that TCM is serving that way in addition to high-def glimpse streamers supply.




Thursday, August 27, 2015

Wayne Mops Up Seattle Streets


McQ (1974) Is Duke In Twilight and Modern Dress

I get sneaking notion that, given choice of John Waynes to watch, most would just as soon it be a McQ, or Brannigan, or Big Jake, as any of the rest. Too many of classics are over-exposed, or served in too deep a dish, like freighted-with-politics The Searchers, which revisionists now call "not enjoyable." Will they realize (or admit) that their own over-analysis that has made it so? TCM ran the 70's three last week, in succession, and in wide HD, to benefit of each, and maybe it was relief to have Wayne in stuff you could half-watch while steaks grill or books get read. He's heavy (or tactfully: well-fed), rug-bedecked (did villainy ever think to snatch off his piece?), and isolated (Duke seldom gets to "belong" in late vehicles). McQ has odor of a Starsky/Hutch or other TV chase after "dirty" cops or dealers with their "junk," Wayne too long at the fair (age 66) being understood at the time. Sick abed John Ford made near-an-end note of Duke "playing policeman in some rubbish," instead of being nearer Palm Desert to visit, the old man knowing well a reality of jobs taken just to stay active.


So what is good about McQ? I found several things to like, this a first ever view --- like others, I ducked it when new (McQ took years to break even, says Scott Eyman's definitive Wayne bio). Actually, the thing works as clinical exam of an icon on plod to career close. Seems Wayne knew McQ for "pedestrian" work it was, but who was offering better? Modern-dress action wasn't unknown to him, as witness contempo investigation Duke conducted as Big Jim McLain in 1952, relaxed and engaging coat-tie work to make us wish he'd been a detective more often. McQ borrowed off Bullitt, Wayne making McQueenish noise in a Trans-Am, and critics/public in '74 recognized McQ as his answer to Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry. Inhibiting was belief by Wayne/Batjac that his was still a "family" audience, thus violence/sex kept below "R" level. A sharper edge to the knife might have renewed his action brand, but Wayne wasn't for assuming such risk at so late a date, and he'd not approve explicit stuff in any case.


Seattle location is a help --- again, it was Steve McQueen who taught H'wood to set action on (actual) streets, having insisted on S.F. authenticity for Bullitt, which others emulated once they saw success of his. Based on theory that a big man needs a big gun, Duke gets his cannon to dwarf Eastwood's comparative pea-shooter, and it's fun seeing him knock out carloads of villainy with a single shot. Good players who'd lately done better movies are along, Al Lettieri to evoke The Godfather, Eddie Albert anticipating a later the same year The Longest Yard. Anyone who worked with late-in-day Wayne could depend on being asked about it during interviews to come. Julie Adams, doing but one sequence with Duke, has been go-to for McQ lore since, her quotes on the experience found in Eyman, Ronald Davis, elsewhere. McQ unmask of Mister Big in department corruption comes straight from C. Chan's playbook --- look for your least likely suspect --- another of reasons Wayne came to rue the job. Mighty tired stuff in 1974 to be sure, but quaintness and even pathos of tired-out Duke giving it one more thrust lends McQ value not so apparent then. Who knows but what belated appreciation for McQ may lead to repeat spin of Brannigan?




Monday, August 24, 2015

The Dead End Kids Do Reform Scool

Interesting Wrap-Up Scene That Did Not Appear in Final Prints

Crime School (1938) Is Socko For The Strand

For most movies anyway, it was New York's audience that had to be pleased, being point from which word-of-mouth and trade ads flowed. Obscure as it seems in hindsight, Crime School made big Gotham noise when new, its three-week Strand stand a history-maker for this modest B done by Warners at $222K negative cost. The Dead End Kids were fresh produce, Crime School a follow-up to previous year's Goldwyn hit that gave the teen team their name. Fun aspects of hooliganism would be sifted henceforth from social commentary woven by playwright Sidney Kingsley and Dead End director William Wyler for the '37 release, and I wonder if either realized it was boys on a loose who'd sustain for decades (and counting) after heavy stance of Dead End was forgot. Warners had sense to know where value lay in their misbehaving ensemble, but would a public beyond rowdy Strand-goers appreciate them as much?


Dead-Enders were distinctly urban to start, born of the streets familiar to city-dwellers who'd make up bulk of their following. Crime School was perhaps a surprise in terms of NYC reception, not because they liked it, but because of how much they liked it. Warners had figured Crime School for a one-off, and so let contracts lapse for some of the kids, advantage seized by Universal, who'd hire now-idle membership to do Little Tough Guy, a quick trade on interest generated by Crime School, and cause for WB to cinch up the ensemble and not let fish slip the net till Dead End currency was wrung dry. That wouldn't take long as things worked out, but what boon these boys were to companies that used them henceforth: Universal again, for a string of B's, most sadly MIA at present, at least on watchable terms, and then immortality that was The Bowery Boys, a Monogram, then Allied Artists, gift to keep on giving via WB Archive DVD sets and now HD stream-and-broadcast at Warner Instant and TCM.


Crime School was produced by Bryan Foy, WB's whirling dervish of a cut-rater, but one to be reckoned with for oft-time he delivered sleepers that could play "A" dates despite "B" trapping. Crime School shaped early as something special. In fact, it was ordered back into production for punch-up of a finish after execs, impressed with rushes, smelt potential for a breakout. Fact that it was night-shoots indicates time/expense WB was willing to bear as Crime School got ticked up a notch. Foy was buoyed enough to contact chums in exhibition, these numbering hundreds, telling each to be on lookout for sock attraction that was Crime School. Warners made trade hay of the Strand smash, that theatre their NYC flagship and testing pond for much of product. Cagney had made his bones there, no more loyal following was elsewhere for this dynamic player. To team Jim with the Dead End Kids for Angels With Dirty Faces was mere common sense in light of what his previous stuff and Crime School did in NY and other urban centers.



Crime School is object of Greenbriar interest thanks to HD unspool at TCM. What I note from this first view in years is how good Dead Enders comport themselves both comedy and serious-wise. Billy Halop strikes me as lots better actor than he got credit for. Grown-ups have mostly nuisance value, even Humphrey Bogart as do-gooder reformist at the boy's asylum to which the Kids are sent, his romance with Gale Page strictly warm milk and no way precursor to Bogie who'd later emerge. Him taking two reels to Crime School-arrive is no loss either, but here's the thing ... it's near a most noteworthy pic Bogart was associated with since The Petrified Forest, which shows how poor his lot had been over a past couple years. And did Bogart notice how close his fortunes were linked to the Dead End Kids from 1937 through a next season? Three sharing marquees with the boys, Dead End, Crime School, and Angels With Dirty Faces, raised specter of continued teaming. In fact, Warners floated trade talk that Bogart would be back with the kids for a follow-up to Crime School. Rescue for HB may have come for failure of the film to stand up in the sticks, where Crime School fell down notably before rural folk. Final tally was still a wow, however ... $1.4 in worldwide rentals and $758K profit, which was more than most Warner A's got that year.


Crime School touched on social issues but lightly, and in strictly melodramatic terms, but wouldn't escape notice of special interests. Were there New York reformatories (Crime School's implied setting) that starved boys and whipped them with a cat o' nine tails? The film suggested yes, but lit-up NY penologists gave Crime School a pan for giving "distorted impression of correctional methods and treatments of reformatory inmates." Such abuses simply never took place, said officials, "except in the chain gangs of the south," which everyone recalled WB exploiting back in 1933. Coin-of-realm endorsement came from the Boys Scouts of America, whose leadership sent letters to countrywide Scoutmasters urging them to see and recommend Crime School to membership. Hit status of the pic, plus Bogart's risen star, led to WWII reissue for Crime School, above ad a sampling of play-off as Cleveland support for "Idol Of The Air Lanes" Jan Garber and His Orchestra.




Thursday, August 20, 2015

Good Bad Men Are Hard To Find


Bill Hart Mows 'Em Down in Knight Of The Trail (1915)

William S. Hart has another romance impeded by road agent/badman past. The title is tip to Bill's essential goodness; as was case in so many of his, it only took a right woman to sever ties with outlawry. Any Hart yarn could be told in two reels, reason maybe for his early shorts being a best intro to the cowboy immortal's stuff. Bill would invariably start as a man with secrets and emotions pent up, payoff deriving from disposal of no-goods that have misled the gal he loves or town he protects. Knight Of The Trail situates Hart alone in crowds, seldom facing others at the bar, a solitary drinker even when surrounded. At cards he's disengaged, unless someone cheats, then it's hell from both barrels. There were more close-ups for Hart than was accorded most stars, his face a reliable map to where stories were headed. Being older, and looking it, relieved Bill of action expectation a Tom Mix would have, and that eventually made his stuff seem quaint. Hart's approach by nature wouldn't change with times, but he had a nice run and kept standards high at work he did.




Monday, August 17, 2015

Junior Names Carry a Metro Musical


Three Hopefuls Say, Give A Girl A Break (1952)

A second-tier musical sold short, if at all, by Metro marketers not averse to dumping product they lacked confidence in. In Girl's instance, there was no Broadway open, and for a most part double-featuring from there. Variety gave it but "mild chances as a companion feature for twin bills." The negative had cost $1.7 million, a fair chunk even for musicals aimed higher. Girl was slated initially as vehicle for Astaire, Judy Garland, and Gene Kelly to trio-star. Their withdrawal left normally support talent to make music and dance: Marge and Gower Champion, Debbie Reynolds,  beginner Bob Fosse. The format serves them, being simple as to plot, which is to say there's virtually none beyond choosing one of three girls to lead a B'way revue. Absence of narrative allows more of what we're there to see, and these players put over nicely the hoof-work. MGM creates a Gotham of 50's dreaming, all full moons, cityscapes, and gleaming yellow cabs. I enjoyed this, on Warner Instant in HD, as much as higher-profile songfests Metro cobbled during late term of musicals' Golden Age. Too bad a spoiled 1953-54 public didn't agree, Give A Girl A Break ignored to ultimate loss of $1.1 million. Variety noted a 3/54 Chicago surfeit of pics not strong enough to play as singles, thus the RKO Grand's late winter policy of pairing weak sisters for single weeks so they'd at least have Loop play and satisfy distributors who'd advertise to that effect. Give A Girl A Break thus ran a single Chicago frame as combo with Tennessee Champ, another limping out of MGM that was more properly labeled a "B."




Thursday, August 13, 2015

Did Westerns Crab Buster's Act?


Buster and Fuzzy Hunt the Outlaw Of The Plains (1944)

There was an impatience about Buster Crabbe's cowboy that I sort of like. Was this general attitude of a lapsed Tarzan/F. Gordon peeved at doing westerns by stopwatch? It would be interesting to know what they paid Buster per oater. $750 or thereabouts? That's still a fortune by 40's working folk standard, and might seem a better gig had PRC done more than mere eight per year. Crabbe would have supplemented with other things, like swim shows here/there, jungle or prize-ring B's, etc. Was there youth that preferred Buster and his cheapies over slicker merchandise from Republic, or did groans greet PRC logos? A development in series western was kids gravitating to sidekicks and sometimes liking them better than heroes. Al St. John finessed his Fuzzy into center ring of the Crabbes. It takes two reels, in fact, for Buster to even show up in Outlaw Of The Plains. Until then, it's wall-to-wall Fuzzy and whatever reward or punishment that amounts to for then-or-now viewers. PRC stinted on action, so pix got/get by, if at all, on personality of saddle personnel. Retroplex has shown a few in what they call HD, but even w/ doubt as to that, quality is leagues better than PRC westerns have looked for years.
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