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Monday, September 01, 2014

Metro Serves One Rare


Confidentially Connie (1953) Makes Us Ravenous For Rib-Eye

This modest Metro from 1953 really got the razz from reviewers at IMDB, but I chanced a Warner Archive DVD (excellent quality) and it pleased. Going in with expectation is ill-advised with any budget pic from majors in TV-wrought decline. Confidentially Connie and ones similar were made to cover talent overhead and give distribution arms something to ship. The fact most lost money was secondary. A Mogambo or Lili of that year would cushion falls Connie took ($42,000 in the red from a mere $501K negative cost) and prevent hemorrhage to lion ledgers. Confidentially Connie is comedy after mirthless fashion, but interest rises from dated aspect of same, to wit pregnant Janet Leigh giving up precious cigarettes so she and underpaid college prof mate Van Johnson can afford red meat for supper. "Wrong then and wrong now" might be warning label Warners would affix to Confidentially Connie, for this is one-of-a-kind celebration of blood rare beef and how much we crave it. There'd be well-deserved Courage Award for anyone who'd dare remake Confidentially Connie today.


So who dreamed all this up? Turns out it was Max Shulman, of later Dobie Gillis fame, whose social satires were 50's-locked and now-fascinating mirrors of lifestyle radically changed since. Co-writing the concept was Herman Wouk, he of triumph with novels to come. The focus on meat becomes obsessive, Metro having ginned publicity by putting real cuts before a grateful cast during production. Spoilage came in Minneapolis when a planned tie-in with a local packer was nixed by the Meat Institute Of America, that national concern claiming Confidentially Connie was a malign on their trade that held butchers nationwide up to ridicule. Reprisals included dealer reduction of meat costs throughout Minneapolis to contradict Connie's notion that meat prices were high and climbing. The local Paramount theatre playing Confidentially Connie tried quelling the dispute by saying the pic inspired staff to stock up on meat, so stimulated were taste buds thanks to Metro's treatment.


All this tempest over a mildest, and now forgotten, comedy. But Confidentially Connie did rouse my own crave for cuts, so I'd endorse it at least as antidote to vegans. The '53 controversy illustrates hyper-sensitivity in play where movies were/are concerned. Other points Connie made were better received. Argument that college instructors are underpaid, and deserve more, was applauded by Minneapolis' PTA and Twin Cities college faculty members, to whom invites were extended for a gratis advance screening. With these groups behind it, picture has been doing better than average business during its eight-day run here, said Variety of the Minneapolis stand. Trade reviewing was generous, even as Confidentially Connie aimed no higher than support on duals. Mostly, it played with other MGM's figured to be safer bets: Jeopardy, Small Town Girl, Sombrero. Leo was still firm-committed to B's, though 1953 would be a final season per the policy. The company got out 45 feature releases that year, but  would drop down to only 25 for 1954, hope being that wide screen specials would make up the difference with longer runs.




Sunday, August 31, 2014

Misunderstanding Among Warner Skunks


Chuck Jones Lends Fragrance to Scent-imental Romeo (1951)

A surest route to Employee Of The Month at Warner animation was to develop a new character that might catch on with exhibs and a public. Pepe LePew was such an invention, and I can imagine him as quite the fad before repetition/ennui set in. Like the Road Runner, this was a one-joke affair, but unlike RR with Coyote in pursuit, there was less variation at hand. Essential to all Pepes was his misidentifying a female cat as another skunk and potential mate. With Chuck Jones at ongoing helm, the idea bore fruit despite retelling, but no way could LePew be so frequent and welcome as was Bugs and Daffy. Part of barrier to longevity was his character, Pepe a lover rather than fighter in animated arena where romance was for briefest asides. Jones used the skunk as benign foreground to verbal gags, many of them sign-posted along Paris boulevards Pepe inhabits. In no place did Jones' sophistication (appreciated perhaps best by himself) get better airing, the LePews set at same subtle key as Ralph Phillips shorts the director had made. To put it in '52 election context, I'll bet Adlai Stevenson supporters were quietly amused by intellectual flatterer Pepe (and his director), while Eisenhower voters howled at Bugs. Like Adlai, Pepe would eventually lose.




Saturday, August 30, 2014

Ann Butler and Jay Brennan --- Say Who?


You Don't Know The Half Of It (1929) Captures a Vaudeville Moment

I'll not try too hard getting this straight: Jay Brennan began with a male partner who impersonated a woman for their stage act, the latter killed by a bolt of lightning which necessitated replacement by another man as woman, then came Ann Butler to enact, closely as possible, a woman being a man being a woman. Vaudeville history needs scorekeep better than mine for minutia like this. We wouldn't notice or care but for unearthing (by Warner Archive) of curiosities like You Don't Know The Half Of It, which is mostly Butler telling Brennan of odd men she's known (they're odd?). Songs and patter are fun, one's called Can You Imagine A Guy Like That?, and no, we can't. It was important for performers, and their audience, to be hep to slang, more so then than today, I suspect. Easy too for us to get lost amidst torrents of catch-phrasing here, but that's joy of a jazz age as conveyed by entertainers who'd thrive mostly on stage, and leave but a glimpse of themselves on film. I found no more than smatter of credits for Brennan and Butler other than You Don't Know The Half Of It. Like so many others, they laid down the act and faded to obscurity. Luckily today there are family members of vaudeville/Vitaphone folk to pursue film and disc that survive, some even bearing costs of mating the media so ancestor's work can be enjoyed again.




Friday, August 29, 2014

Industry To Fans --- Thanks, But No Thanks


Long-Ago Trial Of Breaking Into Pictures

Devilishly Clever Is Not Only The Gentle Letdown, But The Editor's
 Recommend That Mr. Weymouth Study Writing via Pics From Fox Films Corp
How to find a most agreeable way to say No? Film companies from inception sat under deluge of unsolicited stories from fan-ship who figured they could write at least as good yarns as those being made into flickers. Enough hours in a nickelodeon might make writers of us all, thought being shared by so many that "I could do better than that." And so a lot of them could ... and did ... upon breaking into pictures from the outside. Surest way of charging gates then as now was coming up with a fresh yarn. It needed savvy, of course, as to how drama unfolds best on the screen. It never was a same art as novels or the stage. One or two reel subjects needed situation more than story. Just put your man/woman in way of danger or conflict and resolve it by ten/twenty minute mark. Fast learners like Mack Sennett and Anita Loos cracked the code early and made careers, Sennett starting with pulse-quickeners for Griffith (The Lonedale Operator) and Loos putting humor/heat-tug into The New York Hat, also for DWG.

Anita Loos Is Here Because I Always Had Sort Of a Crush On Her, and Further
Consider Her More Of a Looker Than Most Any Actress Of The Silent Era

Gee, that seems simple, thought many in the audience, but it wasn't. A coming feature era would further turn checkers into chess. Hollywood developed a "Classical Narrative Style" to make mass production more efficient. Plebes learned quick to plug love, laughs, or action into three acts that one later described as chasing your guy or gal up a tree in the first, throw rocks at him/her for the second, then bring them down in the third. Again --- sounds like a cinch --- but if it were, why so many bad movies? The reject letters here was from a devoted moviegoer's scrapbook circa the early 20's. Judging by bulk of blow-offs, Mr. Douglas F. Weymouth had been submitting tales to the industry for years, and to that I say Bravo, as any writer knows it takes time and endless struggle, even to fail, as most do. But there's nobility in trying, and that's as true today as when Vitagraph, Fox Film Corp, and Famous Players/Lasky sent out their polite "not for us, but thanks" to never-say-die Douglas Weymouth.




Thursday, August 28, 2014

Another From The United Nations Parade Of Hits ...


Will The Poppy Is Also A Flower (1966) Bloom Again?

This ad in Charlotte's paper stopped me cold. Was this a new James Bond? The Poppy Is Also A Flower was first shown on television (4/66), then at theatres worldwide. It was produced under auspices of the United Nations, financed by the Xerox Corporation, plus monies from Euro distribs. Links to 007 were rife and heavily emphasized. Terence Young of three Bond-ventures would direct a story conceived by Ian Fleming. The cast was international and star-studded, all in for a single dollar, or English pound, Austrian shilling, whatever currency was dispensed in variety of countries where shooting took place. UN topper Adlai Stevenson helped grease wheels of cooperation and equated creative input to public service, thus a Yes from most names asked to participate. Proceeds were earmarked for UNICEF and other charities, so volunteers knew cash would head in useful direction. Director Young had choice of subject matter from UN files, and chose the opium scourge for his action base. From there, a modest venture grew to big-budget quest of Young to out-do Bond and have himself a sprawling and international hit.


Production took nine months at a cost of $1.8 million. Young had worked closely with author Fleming to incorporate "all the James Bondesque elements imaginable." Filming took place all over the continent, much of hospitality via the Shah Of Iran, who put desert locations and his nation's army at disposal of Young's crew. Iranian effort to quell drug trade was lauded by Princess Grace of Monaco, who spent two days filming a prologue for the feature. Distribution got cinched for all territories excepting the US (MGM, for instance, handling UK dates). Stateside majors balked due to Poppy's tube-premiering, that set in stone for 4/22 no matter epic size of the completed pic. Young was told to trim The Poppy Is Also A Flower to 80 minutes for fit into hour-and-half  slot ABC  skedded. That meant twenty minutes shaved off 100 that was Poppy's full length, these including "adult" content Young inserted for worldwide lure.


Some of wallop recalled highlights from James Bonds previous. There were bikini-clad girl wrestlers to evoke the gypsy fight in From Russia With Love, and the rail-set combat to death between 007 and assassin "Grant" (Robert Shaw) from the same film was redone here with UN investigator E.G. Marshall opposing drug minion Anthony Quayle. Variety reviewed The Poppy Is Also A Flower in its TV version and sang praise, called it "drama ... loaded with suspense, action, and excitement." Tube broadcast notwithstanding, there was a "World Premiere" in Vienna (5/7/66) at "the biggest cinema in Europe," seating 3,000 at what ordinarily was host to sport events and ice extravaganzas. Government officials and Poppy stars were there in force as the film teed off successful runs across the continent. What remained was theatrical release for The Poppy Is Also A Flower in America, but who'd distribute after ABC and sponsoring Xerox gave the show away?


A new company, Comet Films, picked up The Poppy Is Also A Flower among twenty features they'd have in US circulation for fall/winter 1966. Poppy, of course, was the jewel, but Comet couldn't swing initial bookings for New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, each turndown based on TV having first sniffed the Flower. Comet settled for a Texas opening, then to whatever keys they could interest. All would pound the James Bond links, Thunderball having been a biggest of all 007's and still playing to full houses. Comet made hay too of fact that theirs was a complete and unexpurgated version of The Poppy Is Also A Flower, unlike ABC's sanitized run. Expectations ran high, Comet headed into the marketplace with 200 prints (an "unusually large number ... for an indie," said Variety), execs figuring on two million at least in domestic rental. They'd adjust that later ("perhaps over-optimistic" said Comet staff), one million being the more realistic estimate. As of June 1967, however, Comet was still trying to rinse off the stain of Poppy having run first on television, and theatres' ongoing reluctance to book it as result.


Poppy barely sprouts on DVD, or streaming, let alone Blu-Ray. An indie label offers it as The Opium Connection, but reviews say picture/sound "leaves much to be desired." There's a disc from Region Two that smacks of buyer beware. You can watch The Poppy Is Also A Flower on You Tube, but that isn't the experience Terence Young aimed for. Maybe it's foolish optimism, but I've a feeling Poppy would flourish on properly restored and widescreen HD, but who the deuce "owns" it? Maybe I should drop by UN headquarters like Roger Thornhill and ask how much for rights to The Poppy Is Also A Flower. Wish someone would, because it's a fun ride over 60's "International" landscape. The cast is glittery, with action profuse, if not on level with 007. I'd have liked Poppy a lot more in 1966 than Matt Helm, Flint, or U.N.C.L.E paste-ups, but who would drive me ninety miles to the Dilworth in Charlotte?


Fun's a-plenty, even on You Tube. Stephen Boyd looks to crack the cartel in a first reel, but is casually killed off so a next star can shine. That's Yul Brynner, and later Jack Hawkins, as uniforms behind UN force. Going undercover are Trevor Howard and E.G. Marshall, theirs an early incarnation of "buddy cops" later decades would popularize. Scheme is to make opium radioactive so shipments will trace easier. Eli Wallach pops in as a dealer who fronts in aspirin and toothpaste sales, while lead heavy is Gilbert Roland, his muscle assist Harold Sakata in Oddjob guise. Briefly-in Rita Hayworth carries heroin in her purse. T. Howard notes grimly that there are "60,000 addicts in New York alone" (so few?). He cites as well "the law of the Mafia" that results in prison strangulation of a would-be informer. There would seem no reason for Trini Lopez to appear and sing Lemon Tree, yet there he is. Such is the wide, weird, world of The Poppy Is Also A Flower, a relic rare and likely to remain so until someone (anyone!) comes to belated rescue and makes it generally available again.




Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Love Contest In RKO Penal Colony!


When Ann Harding Was "A Screen Event" --- Prestige (1932)

Director Tay Garnett turned loose his camera for RKO-Pathe and the thing fairly leaps about sets and location for this melodrama set at a French penal, read Hellhole, colony. Ann Harding foolishly goes there to join dissipated and near-gone-mad Melvyn Douglas, dashing/dutiful when he left, but gone to drink and unchivalrous manner after a year's duty. Will she stay loyal or yield to romantic blandishment of rival Adolphe Menjou? It may not matter for as many as 71 minutes, but Garnett's flamboyant direction makes Prestige noteworthy, being a virtuoso display of how talent could take commonplace content and get real visual excitement out of it. Our POV never stays still; when characters go on the move, we follow. I don't know another '32 release so adventurous. Pete Harrison, of Harrison's Reports, said Garnett's "shifting camera" was headache-inducing and a menace to calm viewing, but modernists agree this director has more due coming. Tay gave Prestige the razz in his memoir, calling it "highly forgettable." My guess is Garnett hadn't seen the thing since it was new, maybe not even then. TCM runs Prestige occasionally, and it's bound to show up soon at Warner Archives.

And see this previous Greenbriar post about star Ann Harding and her home theatre ... circa 1934.




Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Beware The Marabunta!!


The Naked Jungle (1954) Put Ants In Paramount Pants

Soldier ants by billions devouring anyone/everything in their path looked like my kind of Wednesday network movie when NBC premiered The Naked Jungle on 2/10/65, trouble being a school night and bedtime looming before insects began their march. Jungle held promise not dissimilar from Warners' gi-ants of Them! (also 1954), except Paramount took longer paying off on scary set-up. What I recall best of the broadcast was pleas made at each commercial break to let me stay up just a few minutes more for the big attack that just had to come before a next sponsor message. That first hour was agony, what with a music stinger at each mention of "Marabunta," native term for the oncoming horror, plus corpses floating down river stripped of flesh. Yes, The Naked Jungle fell very much into chiller category for all of us starved for shocks in primetime, but it would be years before I'd see those ants spoil Chuck Heston's picnic.


George Pal produced The Naked Jungle for biggest outlay ($1.5 million) so far of his Paramount projects, Jungle a first he'd do with major stars. It returned two million in domestic rentals, had a post-Ben-Hur reissue (w/ Heston emphasis) to reward of $257K more, then near that much again when NBC wrote checks (twice run in '65). Director Byron Haskin gives amusing account of basis  story/resulting script he thought was good, and how Para's front office botched it by shoe-horning Eleanor Parker in as leading lady. Seems she owed them a picture for money loaned her husband, Bert Friedlob, him the indie hustler who'd later give us While The City Sleeps and Beyond A Reasonable Doubt. Haskin figured The Naked Jungle for crab grass after that and so went through paces of yet another studio plod. Charlton Heston thought better of the outcome and said so in his memoir. Neither imagined impact The Naked Jungle would have on a generation of boys for whom killer ants was greatest gift movies could give.


The Naked Jungle was set in South America, or rather the matte paintings were set in South America. Pre-Cinemascope 50's was still arena for charmed fakery of miniatures and painted glass or Masonite to evoke far-off places. Paramount did all this to nines thanks to fx crew lately off When Worlds Collide and War Of The Worlds, also for George Pal. New to Para's screen magic department was John P. Fulton, he of Universal horror background and a successor to recently deceased Gordon Jennings. The "Marabunta" make a frightful noise, which I suppose ants would if counted in millions and crawling all over you. Actually, I looked up that word after reading Byron Haskin's claim that he dreamed it up ("I coined the word myself") --- Marabunta is defined as "any of several social wasps" or worse, a wasp "with a mean sting." As for the term applied to army ants, Wikipedia suggests it, but I wonder if that and other contemporary references aren't result of The Naked Jungle and impact it had. The Naked Jungle streams currently on Amazon Plus in HD, looks fine, but is full-frame where it should be 1.85. Guess Paramount will do the fix and deliver The Naked Jungle on Blu-Ray about the time Marabunta show up at my door.
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