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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Twentieth's Rothschild Dignity Sale

Schenck/Zanuck Score Historic Hit with The House Of Rothschild (1934) --- Part One

Was there a sharper producing mind than Darryl Zanuck's? I've read his book of memos compiled by Rudy Behlmer. The man had pictures down to a science well before he left Warner to form Twentieth-Century Pictures with Joseph Schenck, the pair putting The House Of Rothschild into play for year anniversary of Twentieth. It was a bold yet solidly commercial choice, considering Zanuck had brought George Arliss over from WB, a hire the latter called talent raiding ... but wait, the Brothers let GA's contract run w/o provision for its renewal, so big fish Arliss was honestly caught. What success Warners had known with this star got dwarfed by The House Of Rothschild bringing $2.3 million in worldwide rentals (negative cost $529K), a figure to surpass all but biggest then-successes, especially in depth of Depression. For Zanuck/Schenck to achieve this, with a new and independent firm, was movieland miraculous.

They had help, of course. Powerful interests backed Twentieth-Century, among them Louis Mayer, Irving Thalberg, and Joe's brother, Nicholas Schenck (all these very silent partners). The Schencks were not unlike historic Rothschilds for looking after each other and guiding an industry via compatible business ventures. Theirs wasn't a large studio, S/Z starting with rental of space at the old Pickford/Fairbanks lot, and sharing that with a busy Samuel Goldwyn. Zanuck was intent on class product that would compete with the best anyone had to offer, a first brace out of Twentieth-Century as sure-footed as what MGM or whoever sent to theatres. In fact, it was quality of the team's first year that opened palace doors (as in Broadway's Astor Theatre) to The House Of Rothschild, where the thing ran like a house afire to precisely an audience that would appreciate it best, sophisticates, a critic community united in praise, and Gotham's cultural mix for which this show was ideally suited. Rothschild's New York success is detailed expertly by Aubrey Solomon in The Fox Film Corporation, 1915-1935: A History and Filmography, one of the best studio histories I've come across.

The House Of Rothschild has taken on recent interest thanks to TCM including it among Jewish-themed features during September. The film had otherwise turned up seldom, though it was syndicated from the 50's, another of those termed epoch-making when new, but forgot since. 1934 was, after all, eighty years ago, and exams of anti-Semitism would hit harder as decades followed. The House Of Rothschild works well as social plea and Arliss vehicle, even if he's less the whole bag than was case at Warners. Humor is not so afoot due to weightier conflicts, though George does work in asides to amuse where possible and without lessen of message. It's nice to see TCM make an event of Arliss and The House Of Rothschild, their primetime broadcast, with Robert Osborne and a studio guest, conferring status upon the rare-seen show to evoke importance it had when long-ago premiered.

Status and importance were bywords when The House Of Rothschild opened for $2.00 tops at the Astor, plus Dignity ... Always Dignity (caps mine ... and Twentieth's). This would be no occasion for "ancient, stereotyped order of ballyhoo" like staff on stilts with sandwich boards: "It is essential that wild exploitation stunts be discouraged, and the picture be exploited with dignity," said pressbook advisory. Distributing United Artists quoted the Rothschild pater familias himself, "You must walk the world with dignity," as guidance for showmen normally given to exuberance. They'd need to pull in horns for this one and let The House Of Rothschild sell itself on prestige and word-of-mouth (plus print) from opinion makers. Toward that, Twentieth scored a TIME magazine cover with Arliss in Rothschild guise, and periodicals were full of the film. "It is a picture which must be so handled that it keeps its skirts clean of any propaganda" was reflection of what worried Twentieth's team from the beginning. Would The House Of Rothschild be so pro-Jewish as to arouse anti-Semitism?

Public acclaim would assuage those fears, but the run-up was touchy. More than one periodical of the day referred to The House Of Rothschild as "Jewish propaganda," while doubters among the trade said it would choke in the heartland. Zanuck and Schenck rolled dice and won, chips placed largely on extended roadshows that would alone recoup Rothschild's cost (initial hard ticket sites included Cleveland, Boston, Utica, and Los Angeles, these set before the Astor premiere). Schenck/Zanuck's strategy again reflected action in the film, the Rothschilds having gambled their fortune on outcome of Napoleonic wars, and emerging richer for the risk. The House Of Rothschild would be the show that made Twentieth-Century Pictures, impressing banks and individual investors who'd trust Schenck/Zanuck judgment as merger with the Fox Film Corporation brought about 20th Century Fox.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Republic Tries a Whodunit

Ellery Queen Solves The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935)

Republic does  Ellery Queen, and it's darn good. Everyone thinks of that outfit in galloping or cliffhanger terms, but there were stabs at a mainstream, many turning up on Netflix and not a few of interest for those who've pigeonholed the Yates factory too long. Besides, it not as though we can see Ellery Queen elsewhere, the Columbia series with Ralph Bellamy long out of circulation. Donald Cook plays the detective as indolent observer of seaside murders, bodies piled like cordwood before he takes active interest. Cook requires getting used to, our dominant image of him the priggish brother to James Cagney in Public Enemy. Republic's 1935 release schedule saw as many modern dress actioners as westerns, their ID with the genre not yet firmly established. Helen Twelvetrees had landed there on a slope from stardom, is top-billed in The Spanish Cape Mystery. There are exteriors as the title implies, shot at Laguna according to then-trades. Cook as Ellery goes on vacation with elderly and irascible judge Berton Churchill, a head-scratcher as to what these two would have in common over a month spent at a rental cottage. Still, it's a novel set-up, and Churchill for-once sympathetic is refreshing. I was pleased with myself for guessing the killer about halfway in, though most could probably have figured it in a first ten minutes. Excellent quality on Netflix.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Paramount Punts One For 1949

Bride Of Vengeance Plays Loose With The Code and Is Fun Besides

Adjudged by most to be a stinker since 1949, Bride Of Vengeance surprised me by having much to enjoy, a game cast seemingly wise to fact they're immersed in disaster and figuring to get what fun they can out of it. Bride Of Vengeance greased skids for Mitch Leisen at Paramount, him blamed for inaction at ticket windows ("slim" in Chicago, "drab" in L.A., and so on, said Variety). But whose screwy idea was it to do a picture about the Borgias? At least Paramount wasn't alone, as 20th sent Henry King with Tyrone Power and Orson Welles to Euro-location for Prince Of Foxes the same year, Welles to essay another of the lethal family. Bride Of Vengeance was lots more economical, done seemingly whole on Para stages, and with a cast less starry than Prince's: Paulette Goddard, John Lund, MacDonald Carey. Accounts claim Goddard was so bad that Mitch gave up on her and let the actress flounder as best she could --- now me, being easy to please, found Paulette no worse here than on any other occasion, though she does seem to lack awareness that Bride Of Vengeance plays best when sent up slightly, which is where co-star John Lund excels.

Lund was supposed to freshen a postwar garden of lead men, Paramount launching him in dual role as Olivia DeHavilland's love mate, and later son, in To Each His Own, a Leisen homer that put him near rank of DeMille and Billy Wilder on the Marathon lot. Lund would have less luck than a Lancaster, or Kirk Douglas, or whatever of newcomers made the postwar grade and kept working to old age. His best known appearance was opposite Dietrich and Jean Arthur in Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair, among that director's less noted features. If Mitchell Leisen was higher regarded, auteurists might study his four with John Lund in a way the later Douglas Sirk films featuring Rock Hudson would be parsed. As it is, Lund was quick forgot after he quit the business in 1963, and didn't come back. Mentioning Lund is worthwhile for his being so good in Bride Of Vengeance, the one of three leads who best got humor inherent in poison pellets and tons of costume.

I'd Bet Foreign Receipts for BOV Were Lots Better Than US Ones
Leisen focused, as with Frenchman's Creek, Kitty, most of his, on dressing both sets and people. His was practiced eye for what we'd look at for a feature's whole, detractors saying he let visuals matter more than story. On Bride Of Vengeance, it was for dialogue director Phyllis Seaton to unbend narrative kinks as they arose. If this seems to sell Leisen short, there's evidence of numerous of his films that were solid as to narrative and performances --- Hold Back The Dawn, aforementioned Kitty, Remember The Night, To Each His Own --- and this director was champion to composers who did some of their best work under his supervision, Hugo Friedhofer and Victor Young come particularly to mind. Leisen had nearly twenty years at Paramount, as staff and for a most part outstanding, director, which was longer there than colleagues would last, save DeMille.

Bride Of Vengeance came with economy driving at Paramount. A postwar slump was biting deep and there'd be a $1.5 million cap on budgets. You can see Bride corners being cut, though Leisen maintains high gloss even to stage walls closing in. Sets are dark and appropriately gloomy as befitting subject matter, Bride Of Vengeance a subject that fortunately didn't need opening up to tall roofs or vast exteriors. Considering it's about a family of slayers, Bride lets membership off the hook in ways that made me wonder who was awake at PCA offices. There's also strong suggestion of incest between brother/sister MacDonald Carey and Paulette Goddard, the two introduced with recap of those they've liquidated offscreen. I figured Carey at least for a grisly finish, but he retires almost cheerily from final reel defeat with every indication he'll be back to try another day, this but moments after back-spearing disloyal lieutenant Ray Burr. And what of battlefield aftermath with legs blown off and blood dripping from sleeves where arms have been dismembered? Looked to me like recap of DeMille's arena in Sign Of The Cross, on which Leisen had assisted. Was he recalling how much fun such explicit carnage could be?

Variety was kind in wake of a trade screening, with forecast of sprightly biz for Bride Of Vengeance. An Easter 1949 opening at the Paramount Theatre in New York had the old confidence brought to bear on earlier shows with lots more potential than Bride Of Vengeance. Stage/screen combos hewed to axiom that what the movie lacked could be made up with live acts to swell receipts. Paramount wanted at least a Broadway opening to brag about, even if credit for success went largely to be-bopping Charlie Barnet "And His Famous Orchestra." Swing was on ways out by '49, but Barnet stayed hot with hits with Cherokee, Caravan, and other of jive faves among the juve set. There were comics Jerry Colonna and Jack Carter ("who do not interfere with one another," said Variety's review), "crack tapster" Bunny Briggs, plus trilling Margaret Phelan, whose "standard" Man Can Be A Wonderful Thing I could not locate on web search. Anyone familiar with this tune, or Phelan? Trade applauded was brevity of the stage program --- 45 minutes --- which made for total of under three hours, maybe less, in event short subjects were jettisoned.

The Paramount's loaded bill did well, but Bride Of Vengeance tanked elsewhere, and there'd be collateral damage not only to Mitchell Leisen, but star Paulette Goddard, whose last picture for the studio this would be. Bride's ill repute kept it out of NBC's shopping cart when the network did a 60's deal for primetime run of much of the post-'49 Paramount library (Bride Of Vengeance coming just under the wire between MCA ownership and titles that would stay with Para). Television release came in 4/67 with Bride Of Vengeance among 56 features, most off-network, in a "Portfolio One" group for syndication. Paramount passed on home video, understandable considering Bride's runt of litter status. My peruse of catalogues couldn't even locate 16mm rental for the thing, Bride Of Vengeance being one hard picture to see for a lot of years. Now there is availability on Amazon Instant (free to Prime membership), along with many Paramount post-'49's previously out of circulation. There is a CD of Hugo Friedhofer's fine score for Bride Of Vengeance. It's on a combo disc with Captain Carey USA, another rich vein of Friedhofer sound. So long as Olive, Legend, Criterion, et al, are licensing Paramount titles for Blu-Ray release, I wish they'd consider Bride Of Vengeance. It deserves wider play.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

From Funnypapers To Film ...

Mutt and Jeff Are Playing With Fire in 1926 Cartoon

By what accounts I consulted, there were 300 Mutt and Jeff cartoons, of which eleven survive. Pretty pathetic, and the more distressing in light of fact M&J were a very big noise in their day, even in silent cartoons where they toplined on and off from the mid-teens to late twenties. Pioneer participant of the series Dick Huemer compared them with Peanuts of later vintage, and yes, the pair seem eternal for short/fat, tall/thin guys still referred to generically as "Mutt and Jeff." Such basic concept made creator Bud Fisher rich beyond Midas, a millionaire off his strip when a million could be made and kept. Once Mutt and Jeff came to movies, they'd not be idle. One company would do shorts a while and fold up, another in wings to take over, Fisher the broker who'd hire artists, then leave them to toil while he cashed checks.

Playing With Fire might be a cleanest sample of the Mutt/Jeff lot. Done at tail-end 1926, it fairly cries for sound still a couple years off for cartoons, and in fact, might have been kitted out with a track for later distribution, as were several other Mutt/Jeffs (animator Huemer, who worked on these, would call sound "the great savior of the animated cartoon"). Playing With Fire happily turned up at Ebay on clean-as-whistle 35mm nitrate, was grabbed by a collector, who displayed his bounty at You Tube, the treasure lovingly taken from its can and placed on a Steenbeck editor for playback. Digitally cleaned rendition is part of Thunderbean's lately released Blu-Ray, Technicolor Dreams and Black & White Nightmares, Playing With Fire a highlight for crystal clarity seldom had from 20's animation tending to survive, if at all, on raggedy terms. Great to see lost films recovered from online auction, spiffed up digitally, then made available for home playback via Blu-Ray. Thunderbean and its collector contacts are once again to be applauded for rescue of rarities and sharing them with fans. Archives could take a lesson from such fast tracking of treasures to outlying enthusiasts who can enjoy them most.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Once Rarest Of Karloffs Back Among Us

A Horror Star's Homecoming Yields The Ghoul (1933)

Boris Karloff UK-bound to go his Yank chillers one better, this a back-from-dead venture where he's an Egyptologist in possession of a charm said to be bridge between here and beyond. A practical problem is bedridden Boris checking out at a start, an arid Act Two denied him, then fitful resurrect as titular "Ghoul," sans dialogue. What talk there is (lots) comes courtesy a Dickensian lot led by Ernest Thesiger, Cedric Hardwicke, and Ralph Richardson, with Anthony Bushell and Dorothy Hyson as bickering romancers. The Ghoul was ambitious, its aim clearly set upon US markets, but this was early among Gaumont pics distributed stateside and had to compete besides with slicker Karloffs done by Universal. There was boomer fever to see The Ghoul thanks to mouth-watering stills Forrest Ackerman used to publish; you'd think from these it was an acme of all things horrific, but where were prints? For years, we figured The Ghoul among lost ones, and it might as well have stayed so for all of a muddy and subtitled bootleg that saw circulation on 16mm and later video. Who dreamed we'd have it finally on pristine DVD and even HD streaming on Netflix? Digital wonders never cease.

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Jukebox Musical Pours It On

Robt. Lowery Gets a Telling From Future Granny Irene Ryan in Monogram Laff-and-Tune Fest Hot Rhythm

Funny Folk and Music Enliven Hot Rhythm (1944)

A Monogram masterpiece! Lowly jingle writer Robert Lowery tries boosting crush Dona Drake to singer status, is stymied in part by dizzy Irene Ryan, who unexpectedly gets the canary spot on records/radio. All this and slapstick too ... Tim Ryan the blustery boss falling over trash cans and wife Irene (they were a performing team), then in walks Harry Langdon to tie up link with comedy's Greatest Era. Future Granny Clampett Irene was a 40's extreme on Gracie Allen; she brays, tumbles, is punishingly dense. Wish there were a hundred Irene Ryan pics I could watch. Dona Drake had been Rita Rio of an all-girl band and appearance in Soundies, those little films you'd look at as a hosting juke box played. Bob Lowery had flaked out of 20th Fox's youth program ... how many Richard Greenes did they need? ... but would secure legacy playing Batman for Columbia in a 1949 serial. Monogram built a single lush set for Hot Rhythm and confined most action to it, the affect serving OK so long as bands rotate nimbly and pace doesn't flag. Doubt if anyone at Metro lost sleep over Mono songbooks, but for second feature placement, they stood good and pleased customers with modest expectation. Langdon alone is basis for watching, of course, but band boxes budget-wrapped like Hot Rhythm are joyous for plenty beyond Harry in twilight, and Netflix has a brace of them in good quality.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Robinson's Roaring Back!

Eddie Doing What He Does Best in Illegal (1955)

A rare-by-1955 animal for Warners --- a totally in-house production just as in yore, with star alumnus Edward G. Robinson doing dynamo duty as if Little Caesar had just happened. Do I recommend Illegal? Crawl if you must to see it. Or more conveniently, watch the HD stream at Warner Instant or a DVD (combo-available with RKO's The Big Steal). Having checked out WB's '55 output, I find much was independent-produced and merely distributed by the Brothers: Land Of The Pharaohs, Mister Roberts, New York Confidential, Blood Alley, The Court Martial Of Billy Mitchell, others. The company was otherwise plunged deep into TV and churning series with vigor unknown since B's from the 30's. Illegal has that sort of energy, being straight-ahead retell of The Mouthpiece, a 1932 monument pillaged for story bumps and characterization since it was new in '32. Variety was catty in reviewing Illegal, "old-fashioned" the term they'd bandy (also "rather dated and well-used"). Weren't they aware it was a remake?

Illegal was like a testimonial for Eddie before his backlog avalanched to television, that to come within a year. Far be it to imagine anyone at Warners trafficking in sentiment, but could Robinson have been handed this for freeze-out he'd known since apply of HUAC screws? He'd been maligned as a Red, kept out of class pics, a hardship then, but palatable in hindsight for fun and unpretentious work he'd do instead: A Bullet For Joey, Vice Squad, Black Tuesday, etc. Chances are Warner's largesse was more profit motivated: their previous year reissue of Little Caesar (with Public Enemy) had been a hit, so why not Eddie in something new? Illegal EGR is forceful after fashion of toughies bearing Warner shield when he was one of their top hands. After this and Hell On Frisco Bay, the actor would slow to character work more age-appropriate. Illegal is valedictory for days when the little giant would slug guys to make a point (his attorney for the offense delivers as many knuckle sandwiches as speeches in Illegal's courtroom). Here is one that makes lawyering almost look like fun (I said almost). What Eddie does with rules of evidence and procedure is sheer joy to watch.

Everyone knew he was an art collector, so an inside joke has mouthpiece Robinson dropping in on crime boss Albert Dekker's H.Q. where he observes masterpieces hung on walls. Eddie I.D.'s each admiringly, gag being they were all loaned from the actor's personal collection, value of six canvasses totaling $213,500 (now it would be millions). Also ensconced in Dekker's pad is Jayne Mansfield --- a (calendar) art object in her own right. This was touted at the time as Jayne's screen debut, done concurrently Pete Kelly's Blues actually US-released first. Anyway, she was a big noise around the Burbank lot, being tested even for Rebel Without A Cause placement with James Dean. In fact, Illegal played many a house as support feature to Rebel, as well as tandem dates with blood relation I Died A Thousand Times, it too being remade from an old Warners property (High Sierra).

Illegal had its Broadway premiere in old-time vaudeville company at the Palace Theatre (one-time temple of variety), where a whopping eight acts preceded the feature. There was the Gaudsmith Brothers in "comedy antics with their uncooperative dogs," a harmonica virtuoso, "the Negro terp (dance) team" Billy and Ann, plus hoop juggling "which by now can be regarded as a classic exhibition of the art" (Variety). A first three days clocked $19K for the Palace, so who said vaudeville was dead? Edward G. Robinson would memoir-say that his self-esteem decreased by the hour during this "B picture phase of my career," trouble with his wife (she wanted a divorce) and son (he was getting one) an ongoing stress. But Illegal wasn't necessarily a "B," negative cost being $634K, about the same as being spent on the Randolph Scott westerns at WB. Illegal drew $535K in domestic rentals, $642K foreign. There was nice profit, $248K, a clear sign that Robinson in the right vehicle was still bankable. His fans would soon get the dollop when everything Eddie earlier did cascaded onto late shows via sale of the pre-49 Warner library to AAP.
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