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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The 1955 Spectacle They Saw ...

Washington Gets Side View of Strategic Air Command

I'd like to know just how many US theatres played Strategic Air Command in true horizontal VistaVision. That experience must have been riveting. I saw White Christmas in vertical 35mm in a print that was made up in 1954, and frankly, it wasn't that sharp. The Blu-Ray looked much better. I'm guessing there were kinks in those initial 35mm reductions from horizontal negatives. It must have been ironed out, however, because even 16mm looked glorious on these VV titles. A print I had of Strategic Air Command was a pip in that smaller format. The battered ad above was from the Washington first-run of SAC. They had it in 1955, and as is apparent here, rode hard on "Horizontal Projectors." There is footage of such a unit in a Paramount newsreel detailing the SAC world premiere in Omaha (which was the Command's headquarters). We see the operator threading his machine as the audience awaits their thrill. It may be the only film of horizontal VV inside the booth, if that's of significance to anyone beyond hardcore pic-techs. A lot of fans claim VistaVision as best of all widescreen processes, but how many of them have actually experienced the real thing? I'm wondering if even one of the horizontal projectors survives. There were only a handful to start with. Query to experts: Were any VV's horizontally projected after Strategic Air Command? What about The Ten Commandments? I never heard of it being shown that way, but maybe someone can enlighten me.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Lights Out at Monster Housing

A Happy Ending Universal Took Away: House Of Dracula (1945)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is beloved, sacred, in fact, among those of a certain birth order. To criticize might be profane, but I still resent the 1948 send-up for its casual re-infliction of Larry Talbot with the curse of lycanthropy. He'd been cured at House Of Dracula's conclusion, giving the Wolf Man saga an upbeat finish, Talbot deserving of release from his five-year scourge. Putting him back in unholy bondage was plain dirty pool so far as I was twelve-year-old concerned, and time passing won't forgive. Again, here was me taking monsters too seriously, but wait, the Talbot character as enacted by Chaney was sincere and in fact deeply felt, the actor's own proudest achievement. Shouldn't we, or Abbott and Costello, be as reverent? I'd have liked A&C Meet Frankenstein better had a recovered Larry come to assist of Chick and Wilbur in disposing of Dracula and the F monster, his past experience coping with each valuable toward vanquish of the pair. Do you suppose Chaney mentioned the continuity goof when approached to do his Wolf Man yet again, or did money button his lip?

There was, in fact, a Castle home movie reel called The Wolfman's Cure, released late in the 8-16mm cycle (1976), according to Castle Films: A Hobbyist's Guide, by Scott MacGillivray. Those eight minutes, indeed House Of Dracula in toto, argue that redemption of monsters is doable, provided rehab is overseen by professionals not over-awed by creatures coming to them for aid. Unflappable Dr. Edelman is equal to task of healing L. Talbot and Dracula, his at least partial success a balm to we who sat frustrated through lifetime of chillers where always comes the cock-up. I for one wanted Frankenstein's monster to thrive, for the Mummy to retrieve lost love, for a Karloff experiment to succeed. Chaney/Talbot of all these was most sympathetic. He enters House Of Dracula "a tortured man," as one character observes (baggage from the Inner Sanctums, plus their signature mustache, increases emotional weight upon LC). The Wolf Man never kills in House Of Dracula, crimes on past occasion answered for sufficiently to Code-permit his survival this time out (alas, not a consideration he'd receive in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein).

A 50's Bring-Back for HoD w/Fiend Accompany
House Of Dracula went out in December 1945 with Pillow Of Death for lethal bedmate. It was the last "serious" horror film from Universal along series lines (that is, ones with Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, Wolf Man et al), though to call any serious invites scorn (hence quotation marks). House Of Dracula, however, seems silly only from a lobby, or TV listing's, distance. It's not laughable beyond glut of monsters that by now seem to travel everywhere in tandem. Ads loaded dice beyond what House Of Dracula offered legitimately, thus a "Hunchback" among fear squad that is actually timid and ill-fated nurse Jane ("Poni") Adams, a contract starlet who by this time had to wonder if marriage to a Universal exec (any exec) might get her out of this tar pit. The studio had announced a $750K budget for House Of Dracula in March '45, wildly out of proportion to what normally was spent on these, so probably not taken for truth even by the Variety scribe reporting it. House filled houses during January 1946, "very strong" as a single at Broadway's Rialto, and three weeks with Pillow Of Death in Chicago first-run. I'm settled that horrors weren't dropped at Universal for falling receipts. It was instead a policy move to classier fare, a same broom that swept serials, B westerns, and action cheapies off Universal decks.

There is a weekly program on one of the sub-channels hosted by "Svengoolie," a 50/60's spook guide resurrected for those who deposit at memory banks. Watching him, especially a House Of Dracula with him, is close as digital comes to way- backing. Miss commercials with late night monsters? Svengoolie has them. He will at the least remind us of what seeing these things used to be. Universal's menagerie has never disappeared from TV. Some outlet is always using them. I wonder why TCM hasn't scooped the lot (of apx. 75 titles, from 30's creakers to 50's weirdies), a concentrate to pour upon viewers predisposed to nostalgia. One thing I learned from exhibiting to college crowds --- they really respected the classic monsters. If there was laughter, it was affectionate. Karloff-Lugosi personas stay potent, it seems (word-of-mouth from parents, or their parents?).

Why House Of Dracula today? --- because there's a Region Two Blu-ray recently out. It's maybe not great, a little variable from part to part, but it will do, and a big improvement on what's US-available (still just a standard DVD). Following is unrelated to that, but I'll tell it: collector and dean of fans Richard Bojarski told me once that original horror stills were rare in NY shops even in the early 50's when he got started. Dick had a file cabinet full of treasure. Some of his trove saw print in Castle Of Frankenstein  during the 60's. I remember there were behind-scene fotos from House Of Dracula, one of which turned up on Bojak The Bojar's (his CoF handle) dealer table at a Gotham paper-con. His price was $300, a wild figure back in mid-80's when he asked it. Today the same pose would get that handily. Will Universal monsters ever stop being collectable? Or more to point, will their desirability outlive my generation? Of posters and whatever knick-knack is out there, I'm told the U fiends stay hottest in hammer-down terms, as in thousands for a starting bid.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Was Football A Dirty Game?

Precode Takes The Field in College Coach (1933)

Precodes could be frankly amoral, part of their charm, as in this gritty forerunner on coaching job Pat O'Brien would reprise as Knute Rockne for scrubbed-up games overseen in 1940. Compare the two and know tight wire all of Hollywood walked under enforcement's heavy hand. Football as shown in College Coach is pure racket, everyone from players to faculty to school trustees on the make, or take. I figured Pat for serious comeuppance, if not jail time, for what he pulls here, but 1933 imposed little such for screen scoundrels, so off he goes to another and more lucrative spot where we may assume a new fix will be in. O'Brien instructs his team to disable a rival player scoring in a game's first half. They end up killing the guy, for which Coach Pat feels no shred of guilt. Neither is he really called to account for it. Precode is all well and good except where we side with victims, and here is instance of that. I don't necessarily begrudge this coach his happy fade, but do confess to mixed emotions.

College Coach posits corruption of higher education as fait accompli. Where football is played, learning is forfeited. Teams are so many dumb gorillas that hold classes in contempt, their instructors bludgeoned into giving grades for no effort at all. Faculty is bought merchandise; only Donald Meek as a chemistry prof has a conscience and expresses it. His department colleague, clownish Herman Bing, is more representative of teachers as a whole. Members of instructing profession must have hated, or ignored, College Coach. Indifferent stance might have worked as well, this a mere programmer in and out of towns in a day or three at most. Besides, precode got round to insulting every group, race, belief, ethnicity, eventually. And there's what we love about it, after all. Fun is mining good or even outstanding characters and performances from College Coach and precode lot. Lots excel here: O'Brien, Dick Powell getting good dialogue and making most of it, with just one song shoehorned in ... Ann Dvorak, husband O'Brien leaving her alone nights, a real stretch to credulity ... Lyle Talbot, a lunkhead grid star, and Hugh Herbert less annoying than usual. Re Dvorak: Note how, in ad at right, she's billed as "The Girl Who Ran Away From Stardom," interesting reference to contretemps Dvorak was having with WB brass at the time.

Just how ruthless was the game where played for high dollar stake? It's flat out said that football was the only way schools could raise revenue. I'm told that's still the case, only more so. We just had a scandal at an NC university involving students not showing up at all for classes and still getting credit (some graduated with honors). The College Coach twist of a boy being liquidated on the field for playing too well weighed heavy on me for not realizing such stuff went on. There are also players given cash and automobiles for dressing out. Do schools even bother hiding such conduct anymore? Again, it's me taking an eighty-three year old movie too much to heart, but certain truths don't date, and college football is a bigger-than-ever business, so ...

William Wellman directed College Coach, thus its helping of guts. Was he a ball fan? I checked the recent bio by Bill Jr., but it doesn't say. Game scenes are robust and as much big-time grid action as audiences outside newsreels, or attendance to the real thing, were likely to get. Movies liked sport as a theme, because with action plus romance tacked on, you could please all of a family. We're shown that there's big money for coaching, as in $40K a year as O'Brien is here offered, and that alone would excuse lots of bad behavior for Great Depression viewers. Quick look reveals John Wayne as a student trading single line dialogue with Dick Powell, but why doesn't Duke show up in the many locker room scenes that follow? One reason may be actual All-Americans of the day used for background. Various grandchildren must still seek this show to spot them. I really liked College Coach, put off watching for too many years, and would give it pennant as best of 30's football pics. There's a DVD from Warner Archive, which was what I watched, quality just fine.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Last Resort For Burnout Nick

They Warned Us: Don't Expect Too Much (2011)

College students team with dissolute director Nicholas Ray to make what he hopes will be a comeback movie. That's thrust of this documentary that plays like three-act narrative. Will Nick pull himself together enough to mine coherence out of 8/16/35mm hodgepodge? He'd spend years trying, vision clouded by alcohol and drugs to which he was firmly addicted. How did he last even for two years' contract with Harpur College, located in upper state New York? Permissive times these were, kids more into "finding themselves" than getting educated (has there been change as to that?). So many come across as crybabies: Ray directs one who weeps as he shaves off an unsightly beard, this after Southern "rednecks" gave him grief for hippie-look and trappings. I was really into this (watched twice) for being in college at same time Nick was pulling his time at Harpur. Not sure if I would have bought into the commune set-up he devised; the guy comes off like a cult leader dispensing tough love and "killer weed" to spoiled brattage that should have been hauled home by Mom/Dad and put to real work. A lot of what Nick spouts makes no sense; he was really trading on a tragically spent rep by this time. At one point, he tells kids that he did indeed write and direct Rebel Without A Cause, to which one not unreasonably replies, Then what are you doing here, man?

Monday, May 16, 2016

A Universal-Stanwyck Dice Throw

The Lady Gambles (1949) Is Better Than Ads Look

Universal by late 40's was back in cheese trade. Their try at prestige had gone a-flounder, thanks to frequent flops. 1949 would usher in cheaper westerns, garlanded with color to good result, sand-and-sex w/ Yvonne De Carlo plus others at appropriate talent level, and on the way --- Ma/Pa Kettle and Francis the chatting mule. Here was profit's way to go, and it worked. U would lay a banquet table for Decca Records' eventual takeover, then creeping takeover that was MCA. What of good pictures amidst this exploitation? One was The Lady Gambles, which took serious account of card/dice play as crippling addiction, Barbara Stanwyck staging downfall to make Lost Weekender Ray Milland scarlet with envy. So what did Universal do with so valued a property? Sell it like piano roll in a whorehouse, per usual. Must have --- in fact, did --- make creative participants blanch. But this was Universal, so what could they expect?

Director Michael Gordon was interviewed years later by Ronald L. Davis (Just Making Movies, excellent book) and would complain of the title. The Lady Gambles atop lurid ads was no lure to Academy votes, despite Stanwyck a more than deserving lead. Interesting how postwar saw Davis/Crawford having their up/downs (mostly downs), while Stanwyck did continuous good ones minus fuss. Gordon spoke of her no-temperament and good humored finish of work. I toted her 50's record against actresses at similar level and found Stanwyck charting far ahead in terms of still-watchable (Executive Suite, The Violent Men), or lately cultish (Witness To Murder, There's Always Tomorrow). Throw in Titanic, To Please A Lady, Blowing Wild, Jeopardy, work with Mann, Siodmak, Dwan ... Stanwyck quadruples quality work any of others did. Of these, The Lady Gambles ranks comparative minor, yet a winner and worth the seek after Universal's DVD set of it and five others with the actress. Released in 2010, back when U still had transfer standards (check the recent Alan Ladds and see how far that's slipped), the Stanwyck set is safe bet for The Lady Gambles alone.

There is location at Las Vegas as it was in beginnings. Stanwyck and screen husband Robert Preston (very good) visit Boulder Dam a year before Edmond O' Brien ran loose there. Treatment of gamble habit is cautious; we're shown it's OK in moderation, Stanwyck's character stood in stark relief to calm companions who bet for recreation and know when to quit. U had to tread soft to get site privileges. The town would not have welcomed a black eye from filmmakers, or depiction of gambling as potential sickness to be shunned. So who negotiated terms of depiction? The Lady Gambles was surely Mafia-vetted to some degree, the place built wholly on crime dimes and policed on self-help terms. Gangland operates in the film, but on margins, bad eggs tending to float in from out of town, and headed good-riddance way once schemes collapse. The Lady Gambles would make splendid pairing with Casino. Has anyone thought to combine them? Gordon said he "really researched" the addiction angle, and it plays credible. I'm not sure there had been a movie before 1949 that took the problem serious. The Lady Gambles is a fine one that should have got more credit then, and certainly recognition now.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Picture New York Had To See

Public Enemy (1931) A Spring Sensation at the Strand

It's been writ that Warner Bros. got back many a negative cost off bookings at Broadway's Strand alone. Here may be instance of that ... Public Enemy in a fifth "All Records Broken!" week, 488,519 people clocked so far, according to a holdover ad above. For Gothamites, Public Enemy was all but a home movie, sensations on screen against a backdrop short distance from theatres where it played. Worth noting is James Cagney's name on neither ad, his still a comet rising. The face is here, and those exiting would not forget impact of that, Cagney as star soon enough to arrive in vehicles his own. For now, Public Enemy needed but shock of content and word spread like hot butter from those who'd been shocked, to others that soon would be. Whatever flame Little Caesar started, this blazed bigger. Gangster films lost stun capacity as novelty wore off and censorship applied anchors, but for now, it was hold onto your nerve for jolts to equal what outright horrors were serving. On topic of compare with those, I wonder how Strand's mob reacted when mummified and title-role Jim fell through the door at Public Enemy stun-gun finish. Think there were audible gasps? I'll bet so.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Robert Youngson Enters Leo's Den

Youngson/Metro's Big Parade Of Comedy Clips

What we now take so for granted ... TCM had a day of comedy last week that I'd have died for in the late 60's: Laurel-Hardy, The Marx Bros., Abbott and Costello --- are new fans being won by these? Much is writ of present day historians forged upon Robert Youngson compilations made between 1957 and 1970. One of what TCM had was MGM's Big Parade Of Comedy, a mid-way Youngson (1964) and not regarded his best, yet I did start-to-finish in nostalgic glow not only for funsters excerpted, but as reflect on Bob as seeming lone voice on behalf of oldies that really weren't so old at the time. He had way of making past seen ancient past. "A quarter-of-a-century ago," his narrators would intone, but honestly, what's twenty-five years? To me, that seems like yesterday afternoon. Would a modern Youngson mourn the distance between us and Hot Shots! or City Slickers? These are a quarter century gone too, but maybe time trips lighter since 1991. After all, we lined up to see Star Wars redone, with grizzled principals aboard, after thirty-eight years. Has there ever been such gulf surmounted in a whole history of movies? So many of Youngson's Big Parade was still marching in 1964, others buried before our lifetimes. Of all his mash-ups, this was most uneasy mix of still-active and long-gone.

Parade was Youngson's first foray into talkie clips. It's been conceded since that sound was not his friend. From promising start of long-unseen silent highlights (including Buster Keaton's The Cameraman), we are amidst, for balance of length, dialogue sections of mixed interest. There's emphasis on sight-gagging where Youngson could find it, thus a tall dose of Dave O'Brien falling down in Pete Smith Specialties, these largely unknown to 1964 youth (the Smiths were available to TV, but no station around me used them). A lot of the sound stuff needed context to work, a problem Youngson always had with excerpts, but not so niggling where he stuck to silents. Clark Gable staging a fake bombing raid makes sense, and gets laughs, when you've watched Too Hot To Handle up to that point. Standing alone, and in need of narration to make sense of it, the routine lays flat.

Youngson's search was for slapstick, which you'd not expect to find in a Garbo vehicle, but to his credit, here is a skiing bit from Two-Faced Woman that works nice as stand-alone, and not needful of explanation as to the film's complicated narrative set-up. This plus famed "Garbo Laughs" highlight from Ninotchka did what her whole career otherwise couldn't --- made Garbo seem a fun personality accessible to a new generation not awed by her remote and chilly image. For that, the long-retired actress should have broken silence to send Bob a letter of thanks. MGM's Big Parade Of Comedy lost money. Had Youngson's audience dwindled down to just kids? ... or maybe these clips were too familiar from late, late shows. A problem could have been folks proposed as funny who weren't necessarily funny folk, like aforementioned Garbo and Gable, but Youngson stuck to known comedy quantity where he could, and there was plentiful footage to draw from. Trouble was, it wasn't necessarily these clowns at their best.

1964 was pre-dawn on the Marx Brothers as Big Men On Campus, and Youngson evidently didn't trust their verbal wit to carry segments he'd use, thus a train-buggy chase that source feature Go West spent over an hour building up to. Most would have said then, and certainly now, that the Marxes don't register at slapstick speed, their part slowing the Parade way down. Robert Benchley was also best when verbal, but here at least his awkward reactions to social stress (a hotel check-in, dentist office, crowded theatre) are brief and straight to a point. Youngson had quaint compulsion to pen lyrics for theme songs he'd assign to Benchley, Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, whomever else he took particular fancy to. Sometimes a clip choice was precisely right to demonstrate what made a star great, as with Marie Dressler's resigned response to a drunken Wallace Beery in Tugboat Annie. In this one moment, we understand why Dressler was irreplaceable, least of all by ham-fist-and-bray Marjorie Main, who thankfully isn't part of MGM's Big Parade Of Comedy.

Youngson appreciates best the silent clowning. There's wild fooling, like mass of humanity pouring out a mansion's front door and down steps like a waterfall, this clip yet to be identified even by experts, but what a bizarre few feet. Who but Youngson, let alone in 1964, would have brought up the Arbuckle tragedy in connection with the disgraced comedian's nom-de-plume direction of The Red Mill, from which extract with Marion Davies is shown. How many realized then that it was Arbuckle that guided The Red Mill as William Goodrich? I assume that was insider info that Youngson was revealing for a first time. Ditto his use of Dane and Arthur, popular and prolific in their day, touched also by tragedy in Dane's case (not addressed by RY) --- but has anyone since 1964 given us scenes, let alone features in entirety, of this team's work? --- which based on China Bound and Detectives highlighted, look illuminating, if not essential, to grasp of late silent comedy.

The big get for the silent portion is The Cameraman, an early demo outside Rohauer revivals of how great Buster Keaton was in his prime. The feature lends itself well to excerpting, Youngson aware that this is the jewel among MGM laugh properties from pre-talking era. Word is they ran off a print that Youngson took home, its resurface after his death paving way for insertion of footage missing from elements Metro successor Warner Bros. was heir to. Chalk up rescue of The Cameraman to Youngson then, plus more recent recovery of the second reel from Battle Of The Century, another thought-vanished reel that was part of his estate and since utilized to put the Laurel and Hardy short for a most part right (only a couple minutes still missing). I wonder if any cast/crew on Keaton's beach pics for AIP (what he referred to as "pajama pictures") happened to see MGM's Big Parade Of Comedy and spoke to Buster about it. Surely someone in his orbit brought word that The Cameraman was back on screens, at least in part. Would Keaton have made trek downtown to see Youngson's handiwork?

Jean Harlow was a biggest deceased name in 1964, thanks to a lurid bio and two sleazy pics in preparation based on lies let loose by the book. Youngson gave her due, of course, and so supplied the curious their first glimpse, outside television, of the real Harlow, who by 1964 seemed an other-worldly sex goddess with alabaster skin and hair to highlight fact she'd been gone a generation. Her final scene in Dinner At Eight, with Marie Dressler, gets Parade airing, a certainty wherever "Best Of MGM" is topic, the company having used the clip before in anniversary shorts (Harlow also gets lion's share of footage in Parade's theatrical trailer, the film's pressbook making her a primary selling point as well). Recognition of the Thin Man series is confined mostly to dog Asta, a common thread run through scenes from at four of the series. Again Youngson ducked verbal sparring to put emphasis on the visual, in this case pooch antics where dialogue played no part. Youngson might have wished he had more of W.C. Fields, seen here in David Copperfield, the Great Man, like the Marxes, on eve of youth's discovery and embrace. Time-honored Laurel and Hardy, Youngson's luckiest charms, get music overlaid upon the egg-crack routine with Lupe Valez from Hollywood Party, which was at least fresh, if not particularly funny, and a dance from Bonnie Scotland has at least advantage of being self-contained, thus easy to extract. I watched Big Parade Of Comedy, deleted it, then realized I didn't have a DVD. Does Warner Archive have this one on their drawing board?
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