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Monday, December 22, 2014

Nice Show, But A Tough Sell

V.Johnson and P.Douglas Switch ID's For When In Rome (1952)

Another little Metro that couldn't (break even). Seems that by early 50's, none of theirs in black-and-white, sans vehicles for top names like Gable, Taylor, or Tracy, came back with profit. Didn't matter how good pics were: without color or marquee lure, they were snake-bit. When In Rome should have been a breakout, stoked as it was with humor and heart. Director Clarence Brown had lately done one similar, Angels In The Outfield, a cockles warmer that deserved applause, which it got ... along with red ink. Execs used to say that surest cure for H'wood blues was good pictures, but here they were and not selling. The bogeyman was television, and whatever recreation a public enjoyed other than theatres. It took king-sized worldwide hits like Quo Vadis and Scaramouche to truly fill nets. MGM released thirty-eight features in 1952, but they couldn't all be Quo Vadis. Continuing overhead and need for product to fill distribution channels made small projects essential to studio health, but when even these ran past one million in negative cost, where was chance to balance ledgers?

Director Brown took cameras and principal cast abroad for six weeks locationing in the Eternal City, economic sense lying in fact that impounded lire would otherwise sit idle. "Cold coin" was better spent making movies in countries refusing to allow cash earned within borders to be taken out. Italy wanted Yank dollars spent on native soil. When In Rome would employ locals for crew work and incidental casting, these a boon to troubled economy. Twenty-eight features had been shot by US companies overseas in 1950, and six more were in progress during a first half of 1951, including MGM's team which arrived in June. Others relied on second units to capture backgrounds for process insertion to shows filmed back home, but When In Rome put stars Van Johnson and Paul Douglas on streets and in historic buildings where action took place. Clarence Brown made accomplished use of settings just as he had for a winning hand of Metros made, at least in part, on US locations: Angels In The Outfield, To Please A Lady, Intruder In The Dust, The Yearling.

Metro merchandising knew When In Rome would be a tough sell, their "Promotion Prize" for exhibitors being tip-off to that. If you couldn't figure in-house how to sell problematic problem, then let showmen in the field take a whirl and use ideas they develop, cost being a drop-in-bucket thousand dollars to be split among winners ($500 as first prize, which went to Jack Sidney, manager of Loew's Century in Baltimore). The scheme was used also for Invitation and Just This Once, two others that defied marketers. These were tough nuts New York cursed Dore Schary for making on the coast. How do you let customers know what this product is? Ads ran a gamut at trying, Rome's first act laid out as hopeful lure for patronage to pay ways in and see the rest. "The Story Idea Of The Year!" and "You'll Have A Wonderful Time!" read like admissions of defeat. Variety caught a preview and said frankly that "chances for more than spotty boxoffice are doubtful." The reason? "Lack of star potency and a story not strong enough on its own to carry the film." Standards were exacting then, trades knowing a jaded public would need better reason to leave home for movie shows they could as easily pass up. Final blow-off was a $900K loss from tepid domestic rentals of $503K and foreign $202K. For $1.3 million Metro (over)spent on the negative, this worthy show never had a chance.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Is An Atom Brain Better Than None?

Home Lab Yields Undead in Creature With The Atom Brain (1955)

Some accounts would have us think that American-International pioneered the cheap sci-fi combo, but Columbia was ahead of them, and probably gave inspiration for double-features where a whole show could be watched inside of two and one half hours. Creature With The Atom Brain was back-stop for It Came From Beneath The Sea, posters lurid in accord with school's out expectation for summer 1955. The majors had spent money on sci-fi in the past, with diminishing returns, and would surrender the genre to budget-makers, then imitate the latter when it became clear what economy merchandise could earn. Creature With The Atom Brain was another from Sam Katzman's wing of Columbia, his Clover Productions an independent maker of whatever sold at given moments. Right now it was chillers, so he made them. Sam used the Columbia lot and had an office there, but tapped banks for much of financing so as to soften pressure of the distributor's thumb he was under. Creature With The Atom Brain earned an impressive $415,000 in domestic rentals, likely four times what Katzman spent to produce it. Overstuffed A's could hope to do half so well. The plot has something to do with dead bodies reanimated for use as remote control killers. Curt Siodmak wrote it and results aren't bad, provided you make plenty of allowance. Kids that spent theirs in 1955 were likely pleased, as I was with Columbia's entire Sam Katzman Collection on DVD.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Betty Boop's Nightgown Comes Off Again

Mysterious Mose (1930) Is Deep In Fleischer Bizarre

There's an intruder at Betty Boop's door! What could he have in mind? The Fleischer team knew we knew, or were at least aware of Max's bunch as purveyors of cartoon sauce and sex, their hanging about brothels during off-hours a creative stimulant peculiar to East Coast animating bad boys. Betty's alarm is signaled by her nightgown flying upward every time there's a noise. Glimpse of Boop nudity was a carrot always hanging in her shorts (did I say that?); she'd be a drawn figure as leered at as laughed with. This was early in Betty's reign; she still has distracting dog ears, but is otherwise human and curve-some. Bimbo is the title's menace lover and shape-shifter, issuing Bronx cheers and less bent on defiling Betty than dancing a merry tune till sudden finish of a less than six minute reel. Well, Paramount's release schedule had to be filled with something, and Fleischer cartoons, even if oft-better in parts than whole, had imagination enough then to stand up as well now. A bunch have surfaced on Blu-Ray, not chronological nor sensibly organized, but welcome withal after years floating in netherworld of discs dubbed off laser of long ago.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Radio Feuds Won't Rest!

Winchell vs. Bernie in Wake Up and Live (1937)

How to take a bandleader and news columnist and make them movie attractions, a cooked-up "feud" driving tissue narrative against backdrop of song. It works, and how, as barometer of what pleased in days when a public paid real attention to stuff press and radio fed them daily. There was no better demo of media power than Walter Winchell giving/taking licks from yowsah-man Ben Bernie, their contretemps profitable in a long run for both. To that slim frame add 20th Fox funmakers Jack Haley, Patsy Kelly, Ned Sparks ... well, the list goes on. Beyond these, Joan Davis just has to show up, and so does in specialty slapstick. Wake Up and Live is what we'd accurately call "escapism" in a best sense of old Hollywood. Being unfamiliar with pop culture of the day would make it seem like foreign language. When a thing like this surfaces on DVD, I'm amazed, but gratifyingly so. Wake woke 1937 trade to rave response, a "bulls-eye" and single day record holder for a past five years at Broadway's Roxy. It was understood that Jack Haley was a feature star born with this. Winchell and the cast guested on Ben Bernie's radio program to stir interest, the home box holding thrall over a wider public than even movies by '37. The only rub for such synergy was its failing to translate overseas. Wake Up and Live took a lofty $1.2 million in domestic rentals, but foreign was meager with $358K. Still, there was $190K profit at the end, and indication that a cycle of such musicals would click, which they did over a next several seasons until the real breakthrough that came with Fox's Betty Grable series. Wake Up from Fox DVD Archive looks fine.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Nice Brit Crime Thriller Lately Out

The Counterfeit Plan Is Warner Back-Up For 1957

Co-produced by Richard Gordon in England, before he'd concentrate on horror/sci-fi subjects. The Counterfeit Plan was good enough for Warners to pick up for distribution in the US, their only Brit buy for that year other than two Hammers that would play wide/gross big: The Curse Of Frankenstein and X --- The Unknown. The Counterfeit Plan was of a sort trades called good for duals and action housing, being crime-centered with faces familiar to Yank market. These were Zachary Scott and Peggie Castle, the former paid $25K for his trip across the pond, according to Tom Weaver's book survey of Richard Gordon's producing career (excellent and highly recommended). The Counterfeit Plan has Scott and cohorts printing funny money on an English estate, flooding London with fake fivers. Warners needed fare like this to support '57's Untamed Youth, Shoot-Out At Medicine Bend, others that couldn't hold up singly. For L.A. saturation of Jack Webb's The D.I., The Counterfeit Plan rode back seat and had probably a largest audience for the couple weeks it played in five theatres and seven drive-ins. Afterward, there'd be spotty television and belated release to DVD by Warner Archive, where The Counterfeit Plan can be enjoyed for a brisk and enjoyable thriller long obscure till now.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Precode Plunge From Way Up High

Skyscraper Souls (1932) Has 102 Floors of Deco and Decadence

When there are taller skyscrapers to be built, MGM will build them. We're shown the "Dwight Building" at a beginning and throughout Skyscraper Souls. It reaches higher than the Empire State that stands alongside, another instance where movies could go reality one better. The Empire State had only lately been completed, a marvel of its age. Only natural, then, that Hollywood would climb higher. In this instance, a convincing matte canvas makes us wonder if there really was a Dwight Building there in 1932, and taken down since. Anyway, this is a more imposing structure on the inside than I'd presume the Empire to have been. Maybe inspired by ultimate statement on modernity that was the Empire State, MGM creates art deco heaven on earth, or 102 floors above it (their inspiration had 103). Warren William's "David Dwight," who of course masterminds the miracle, loathes to calculate a number of men who fell to deaths from scaffolding, and right away we think of Edward G. Robinson in Two Seconds, or John Gilbert and pal Robert Armstrong as Fast Workers, all welding/wisecracking way up during a same year. It seemed as of '32 that best of life was to be experienced nearest to sky. Certainly things seemed bleaker at street level.

The Dwight Building is where rich and poor work, or play, tightest together. Bank teller Norman Foster gets $50 a week at ground floor while bank owner Warren William juggles millions upstairs. Wage slaves are packed aboard elevators as WW rides his in privacy. Something's got to give, of course, Warren pulling one two many cheats, then shot down in his penthouse not unlike King Kong a year later. To reach a skyscraper top meant having no place to go but ... well, that was OK by audiences who thought such men (or gorillas) had scaled too close to God. Was there religious significance to price paid by those rising above all humanity? A public so recently out of horse/carriage must have sensed the unnatural in buildings that challenged the atmosphere. And all those lost souls jumping off! One thing we could rely on with any drama set high was characters playing swan to resolve one or more plot thread. The real thing was happening often enough in concrete jungles. Imagine anyone hitting pavement from 102 stories up. Could one ever rid the mind of such horrific sight? --- and yet New Yorkers by thousands saw it happen during the Depression, some more than once.

Both Want Maureen: Will Either Have Her?

Skyscraper Souls warns of how greed can ruin you. Worship of fast money from the stock market is strictly no-win, a Code preached even by pre-Codes. As banker Dwight manipulates the market upstairs, all of chumps below him put life saving into shares he plans to render worthless by closing bell. Movies continually told us we weren't smart enough to beat that system. They still do. Better to earn honest wage and spend modestly, like on Bijou tickets with the family. Had Hollywood deduced that richest folks didn't bother much going to picture shows? (a step further: How many wolves of Wall Street have ever read Greenbriar?). Hollywood's message to any Average Joe purchasing stock: Don't. Better to shoot dice or play cards for tainted cash, and lose it quicker. Millionaires in movies usually stayed well in a background, so as not to remind us that sometimes money does buy happiness. Ones viewed up close had to end badly as admonishment against wanting too much from life. That's partial letdown of Skyscraper Souls --- we don't want Warren William taking a penalty, even as status quo, maintained too during precode, deems that he must.

William is at least a fittest among plutocrats, being an only Turkish bather not 50-100 pounds overweight. His party guests, aged rou├ęs preying on young flesh, are welcome (for us) victims of WW double-cross to come. We'll accept the latter's defile of Maureen O'Sullivan so long as corpulent and corrupt George Barbier doesn't get her, it being settled that one of them will. But what prospects has Maureen from her own working class, big-mouth and pushy Norman Foster forcing attentions with constant leap to wrong conclusion when Maureen parties at William's penthouse or lunches with him. Foster is no vote for the common man, Souls' end amounting to a sad one when O'Sullivan yields to him out of seeming sheer exhaustion. One precode breath-taker to note is her non-verbal and very visible response to a forced kiss from Foster part way into Skyscraper Souls, a startler that definitely wasn't scripted and I've seen no other (mainstream) movie duplicate.

Skyscraper concept was off Grand Hotel's rack, being multi-character and story-split among many. Adapted from a Faith Baldwin novel, there were changes, and probably improvement, made. I can see daily consult with Irving Thalberg as the script was cobbled, this a sort of project where tips from a mind like his could smooth wrinkles and make silk from burlap. As "all-star" successor to Grand Hotel, Skyscraper Souls is watered gin, but we'd not want others elbowing Warren William, whose vehicle this very much is, or should be, but for cutaways to crisis among less engaging Wallace Ford, Anita Page, Jean Hersholt, others. Page and O'Sullivan would pass each other in this Metro revolver door, Maureen just off the first Tarzan and bearer of a contract and build-up, as Page, thanks to refusal of Louis Mayer come-on (she said), was exit bound to poverty row. Skyscraper Souls would be her next-to-last for Leo. Luxury appointment of Skyscraper's setting made these monoliths seem like 30's equivalent of Disneyland. Did tourists to Gotham put the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings on must-sight-see lists? Just hanging about a lobby like one depicted in Skyscraper Souls would have been a day's vacation for me. But then old pic fans could say as much about any NYC setting from that more attractive time.

Old Goats and Young Flesh Was A Precode Cocktail Often Poured

Did Warren William ever wish he could be Warren William? Cary Grant would later confess an envy of his own screen persona. William was ruthless and unstoppable, qualities 98% of men would covet. His characters were antidote to poverty and despair that was Depression's signature. William could beat back wolves of want and make it seem simple as a next raw deal he'll puts across. Watching him must have been opiate in 1932. It certainly is today with action and speech so severely proscribed by unwrit Production Code more limiting than that enforced from mid-'34. William is one old star who can reach across generations and make us wish we could be his kind of winner-whatever-the-means. In scared rabbit age that is now, he's something like superhuman. And yet the man was mere actor, meekly accepting of roles assigned and able to play even milquetoast if put to that task. He got and stayed married for whole of a screen career, none of pic perfidy rubbing off on private habits or inclination. The man obviously had firm grip of difference between fantasy and reality. Lesser thesps might have been straightaway swallowed up by sorts of screen work William engaged (and seemed so much to enjoy), not unlike a Ronald Colman made mad by overdose of Othello in A Double Life.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A "Money Isn't Everything" Noir

Max Ophul's Caught (1949) On Blu-Ray

Of that category labeled Bummer Noir, Caught may be a weakest of Max Ophuls pics lensed in the US, though like all his done stateside, it's offbeat and never less than compelling. Reviews missed the point and called it "rusty, creaky melodramatic machinery," which sounds near right. Modern observers supply redress by citing a Euro director's trenchant observe of Yank materialism on most destructive setting, and so voila, Caught's a classic. Fact is, it sunk like stone in '49 and pleased nobody, domestic rentals a lowly $511K, the sorriest number on Metro books that year except for Tension, a cheapie noir done in-house. These were dimmest candles on the lion's 25th Anniversary cake. Releasing Caught was a favor done by Leo for David Loew, indie producer, family connected, and talent/money behind Enterprise Pictures, would-be oasis for film artists who wanted off studio treadmills. By fall '48, Enterprise was broke and floundering, Caught their last before giving up rented space at Harry Sherman's Hollywood lot.

Enterprise would need a big bank hypo, as in $300K, to keep making movies, but lenders wanted to wait and see how a final three from them would perform at wickets, optimism a keynote since MGM was distributing No Minor Vices, Force Of Evil, and finally, Caught. All three tanked, and so went Enterprise.  Caught had been most expensive of the trio, its negative cost $1.5 million. Loew's selling arm was flummoxed on how to push such a narrative: Poor girl marries rich, is miserable, meets medico James Mason, ties up loose ends by, among other things, still-borning a child to pave way for happy end, a sour note Caught still sounds. Since when were dead babies occasion for smiles and fresh beginning? Parents particularly would have found this off-putting, only they were down streets watching Metro fare with greater promise: Little Women (the company's silver jubilee selection), Command Decision, and Take Me Out To The Ball Game, each with longer reach for grosses.

Merchandising led with its chin, but how could effective ads derive from such an unpromising premise? Waitress Marries Millionaire! shouted one, You Think She's Lucky --- She Wants To Be A Waitress Again!. This was like peddling Joan Crawford's shopgirl again, only that stock had sat on shelves since the early 30's and patronage was, by 1949, lots choosier. James Mason, lately in from Britain to try America luck, offered faint hope for marquees, and Barbara Bel Geddes was untried beyond a few at RKO that weren't vehicles for her. Delegates at the 2/49 anniversary sales meet were "admonished" (Variety) by both Louis Mayer and distrib chief William F. Rogers to "be aggressive" and get MGM product into "new territories," this a tall enough order where there was good currency, which Leo's competitor's certainly had, most more negotiable than Caught. Mayer never-minded that: "We're going to make pictures. It's up to you boys to sell them." Loew's east coast division, which Rogers headed, ID'ed quick a dog with fleas, and was known to deep-six stuff that emitted smell. To their practiced minds, all of Enterprise barked, and was for putting down. No Minor Vices, Force Of Evil, and Caught weren't really even MGM productions, after all.

Caught is on Blu-Ray after years gone begging for home release (there was a Region Two DVD as part of an Ophuls group). Quality is upgraded from listless 16mm that was tough to locate even in that compromised state. Caught takes swipes at Howard Hughes via nutsy tycoon clearly suggested by him, played by Robert Ryan. Hughes was said to have vetted the mimicry and let same pass, which makes him either thick-skinned or tone deaf to slam this certainly was. Ryan's "Smith Ohlrig" is neurotic, hypochondriac, and a control freak at cosmic level, these aspects of Hughes not so known beyond insiders during the 40's, but decided catnip for 70's and afterward bio/tell-alls. That Ryan could be a nasty piece of work on screen was understood after Crossfire. Of disturbed types he'd essay after the war, Caught may be a most disturbing. Ophuls lets Bel Geddes be less sympathetic by selling herself to such a tyrant, a deal she'll close for pure sake of cash and luxuries. The Money Won't Buy Happiness song as composed by Hollywood (not practiced by them, but preached to us) was never louder sung than here. Did critics and indifferent trade sense a false note?
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