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Thursday, October 01, 2015

Scratching More Big Town Underbelly

Brakes Are Off for Chicago Confidential (1957)

"Confidential" had become a heat-seeking word by 1957. The same-name magazine was daily in news pages, and court documents. Movie stars had begun pushing back its scurrilous gossip, most recently Maureen O' Hara after a particularly nasty story. Confidential also implied fruit of vice and crime, the hush-hush underbelly a mainstream press shied from. Corrupt unions were hot as well, there being AFL-CIO hearings in progress as Chicago Confidential awaited release. That was mere coincidence, said producer Robert E. Kent, whose Peerless company supplied CC and five other exploitation titles for UA release. Two million was figured to cover the sextet, modest means for pix with modest expectation. Trashy themes were a cinch for double bills, but outside of union wrangling as focal point, Chicago Confidential was same old palaver done to death since Warners issued tommy-guns twenty-five years before. Kent had wanted Richard Boone to topline, took Brian Keith instead. There was otherwise a hatful of familiar faces: Beverly Garland, Dick Foran, Elisha Cook, Jr. Pace is sped by directing Sidney Salkow, back/forth between features and TV and maybe unaware (or unconcerned) as to which was which. Chicago Confidential had a boff Labor Day weekend in the Windy City, but fell off in its second frame. "An uneven performer," said summarizing Variety as elsewhere biz also failed to keep pace. Chicago Confidential begins like mild mix, until you're ten minutes in and hooked, the case for me when MGM/HD played a full-frame (should have been 1.85) transfer.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Too Fragile For AIP?

Night Tide (1963) A Sleeper Finally Awake on Blu-Ray

A fascinating little art movie that nibbled around edges of American-International's exploitation schedule in 1963, Night Tide was among "Filmgroup" product overseen by Roger Corman, the indie outfit his thumb-of-nose at Jim and Sam's dominance of the cheap-thrill market. Spring 1963 promised a Filmgroup slate to include Battle Beyond The Sun, Dementia 13, and The Terror, each of horror/sci-fi backdrop, or at least to be sold that way by distributing AIP, a strong arm Corman needed for efficient delivery of output to theatres (Nicholson/Arkoff by '63 had exchanges in most keys with strategically placed sales staff headed by Milton Moritz). Presence throughout the marketplace put pressure on AIP to keep pipelines full, but there was only so much Jim/Sam could produce in-house, thus deals with Corman and other lone wolves to supply product for distribution.

Corman was known for an open mind toward challenging content. He'd begun with flesh-and-spurs or bug-eye monsters, but stayed hopeful that he'd rise to acclaim of Euro arties making inroad by the early 60's. Night Tide, written and directed by Curtis Harrington, had dreamy vibe of imports, and but for English dialogue spoke, could almost go out as foreign. Trouble was claw-hammer selling that would lump it with genre co-features and mislead customers who paid for spacemen, goose-bumps, or both. Season hope was hung on The Raven, another Poe adapt that came in like a lion for early '63 dates, prompting Nicholson pledge to "father the orphan season" of February through May with four releases that would include Night Tide. This announcement came 2/4, Night Tide ashore but weeks later in Detroit as second feature to Battle Beyond The Sun, a cut-rate ride to orbit. "$7,000 or near" was adjudged "fair" (Variety) for a single frame the combo lasted at the Adams Theatre, though following week adjustment brought the figure down to $6,000. An oldie pair that followed, The Rack and Africa Ablaze (formerly Something Of Value), did better by a thousand.

From this point, Night Tide was judged largely by company it kept. A March pairing with The Raven did "nice" in Boston, but back-seating Battle Beyond The Sun in Frisco saw a "bare" $3,800 in receipts. Part of trouble was trade labeling of Night Tide as sci-fi, which it was not, plus problem of critics so far overlooking a film that needed ballast from opinion-makers. Closest support of that sort came from Sydney, Australia, its annual festival for "bluebloods" including Night Tide among guest-pics from other countries. Submit to the San Francisco Festival for November 1963, however, dealt a cruel blow, Night Tide rejected by the selection committee, despite a final slate to reach "plateau of dullness," according to Variety. Opening night selection may have put the hex on ones to follow: Columbia's taxing war epic, The Victors, directed by Carl Foreman.

Night's tide might have turned if art housing had embraced it in 1963, or after, when Curtis Harrington got notice for studio films he directed. Like a lot of second features, Night Tide would end up more walked out on than sat through, action audiences put off because it wasn't the thriller they bargained for. Posters should have alerted them, AIP at least honest enough to tender the show as "Eerie, Strange" (which it was), and "Macabre" (an argument could even be made as to that), but teaming Night Tide with Battle Beyond The Sun was a cinch to let down kids whose coin bought most admissions. A sort-of cult developed in wake of AIP's 9-64 packaging of Night Tide for TV syndication, late nights a right format for unique appeal it had. Now there is happily a Blu-Ray from Kino, licensed by writer/historian David (The Dawn Of Technicolor) Pierce, and mastered from the camera negative in correct widescreen ratio. At long last, Night Tide, always in the Public Domain (Filmgroup features were never registered), can be seen to best advantage on Blu-ray.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

It's Music, But Is It Sweet?

Rudy Vallee Brings His Sweet Music (1935) Baton To WB

Ann Dvorak had P.O.'ed Warners and this might have been her punishment: co-starring with Rudy Vallee. There's nothing specifically wrong with Rudy (well, perhaps there is). I've pondered why he didn't click  like Crosby, having come to conclusion it's the eyes; they droop, you see, and won't fully commit. We never feel he's looking at us, or co-stars. Vallee seemed always disconnected, as if things more interesting awaited him elsewhere once a movie was done. That might well have been the case, RV known offscreen as a busy rouĂ© with numerous irons in fire (including Dvorak). Vallee would, of course, come into his own as a character comedian by the 40's, a new line to which he applied much skill. A best reason to watch Sweet Music may in fact be Dvorak, performing song/dance that was as strong a suit for her as dramatic art via precodes of short time earlier. Tunes on tap, sweet or otherwise, aren't notable, but Sweet Music was no toss-off, being but step below Busby Berkeley specials. Second teams at WB could pull weight with a Sweet Music, Cain and Mabel ... others for which Buzz couldn't make time. Bonuses here include vaude legend Al Shean, torch songstress Helen Morgan, sourpuss Ned Sparks ... faces caricatured in Warner cartoons that played with Sweet Music in first-run. Shown on TCM --- should spring from Warner Archive in due time.

Monday, September 21, 2015

New and Old Audiences Turn Out For A Beloved Duo

The Bullfighters (1945) Is Laurel-Hardy's US Feature Windup

Chicago Open Serves Atom Bomb w/L&H
I'd say the Laurel and Hardy features for 20th Fox are pretty well rehabilitated by now, decades (near five) having passed since William K. Everson put Indian sign on the group in his Films Of L&H book. Everson's was further push of voodoo pins Laurel himself applied whenever topic arose with biographer John McCabe, or in correspondence w/fans to the end of SL's life (2/65). You wonder if he caught portions on TV, or if memory alone kept flames lit. What Stan may have forgot was store of good will had for the team by 40's audiences, all of whom had seen L&H from either silent beginnings or in full-lengths since the mid-30's. Earlier comedies for Roach were back as well during the war to represent the boys at prime. In fact, a then-public was grateful to have Laurel and Hardy at whatever strength, that confirmed by non-stop profit from all eight of features done between 1941 and US finish that was The Bullfighters.

L&H Sit For Fox Portrait Camera
Success was helped by booking efficiencies of Fox and MGM, the team's wartime employers that put product on screens whatever its merit. Virtually nothing majors released during WWII lost money, so ingrained was moviegoing habit at the time. However little critic support they got for it, Laurel and Hardy kept slapstick's flag flying. Outside of cartoons, or two-reelers still done by Columbia and RKO, the field seemed theirs. Sight-gagging L&H amounted to a nostalgia act, thus wider-aged patronage within their net. Abbott and Costello were fresher, at least seemed funnier at the time, but customers hadn't grown up with them. Laurel and Hardy's bank of comfort and sentiment was accrued since childhood of their public, evidence of which was not just response to the films, but clear lead the team enjoyed over peers on the Hollywood Victory Caravan, a cross-country and star-laden tour to sell defense bonds. Many would recall Stan/Babe as a public's first choice at all stops.

What the Fox six (and Metro two) demonstrated was L&H ability to pull weight where vehicle costs were kept low. That meant B's, natch, but since when was it necessary to spend high on this duo's output? A big problem for the Marx Bros. had been cost for film work from virtual beginning. Many of theirs took loss not because the team was disliked, but for failure to get back cash poured into negatives. The Marxes came with a high tag, more so than Laurel and Hardy (the Brothers had demanded, and got, a % of Paramount returns). Had they been willing to stay in movies, but on B terms, the Marxes might have kept on, if modestly, just as did L&H. A ready audience was certainly there when the Bros. offered A Night In Casablanca in 1946.

Question is, how would things have gone for Laurel and Hardy had they accepted Fox's offer to continue the series? The team might well have had more creative authority. Scott MacGillivray's Laurel and Hardy: From The Forties Forward says Stan directed scenes in the last couple for 20th, and both made gag suggestions that were implemented. The Big Noise and The Bullfighters are glossaries of L&H humor going back to start of their teaming. Most of borrows are from silent shorts, all out of circulation by the mid-40's. I like The Bullfighters, viewed again this week, because it doesn't try to update Laurel and Hardy (like favorite songs, few wanted them to change). The pair wouldn't peak again, but no shame came of these last in the US, which were well-received then, and gave satisfaction later on TV and rental. I trust Fox got profit from sales of their six on DVD. I'm told a few turned up on Blu-Ray from Europe, but have not seen samples. The Big Noise is probably the best-looking of transfers. Others could use work, especially The Dancing Masters, which was taken off 16mm for the DVD. Jitterbugs ran at Cinecon this year in a new 35mm print, which I'm told was stunning, so maybe it will stream in HD, or see domestic Blu-Ray release, provided there's enough L&H interest left to enable that.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Enough Of Sleuthing Couples?

Murder and Mirth Again with There's Always A Woman (1938)

Too much madcap! Metro's Thin Man formula co-opted by Columbia, Joan Blondell and Melvyn Douglas as husband-wife sleuths. Blondell generally does no wrong in GPS quarters, so to find her grating as here puts salt in wound applied by too-cute dialogue and situations. Such a knowing persona as JB's, demonstrated over and again at precode Warners, is woeful miscast when harebrained, let alone as constant handicap toward solving a pair of deaths. This is once when comedy drowns out mystery to detriment of both,  proof of just how delicate the Thin Man formula was, at least to extent of duplicating it. Melvyn Douglas was always a better actor than personality, sense being that he pinch-hit when a Gable or William Powell couldn't be had. Scrappy stuff between him and Blondell nears a border I'd call abuse, and what's more painful than a drunk scene that refuses to end? For Blondell's part, there'd been move away from Warner exclusivity; they'd been shunting her to B's, maybe in recognition that this daughter of the Depression had spent her bolt. Was Joan trying too hard to compensate here? There's Always A Woman is well made if not sumptuous, and there are welcome faces in the suspect line: Mary Astor, Frances Drake, Jerome Cowan ... Astor might have wondered why two-years-earlier Dodsworth hadn't done her more good. A series with the Blondell/Douglas characters was planned, one more in fact made, but with Virginia Bruce subbing for Blondell. There's Always A Woman took $505K in domestic rentals, not shabby, but nowhere near what Thin Man sequels routinely earned. Shown on TCM --- also available from Sony/Columbia DVD.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Was The King Tottering On His Throne?

Metro Does Lone Star (1952) In Old-Fashioned Ways

Lon Chaney On Stage? --- What Do You Suppose He Did?
Clark Gable and Brod Crawford's doubles fight over Texas independence in a Metro said to represent the system on a slope and CG King-dom in decline (a Lone Star clip appears in the Dear Mr. Gable doc proposing just that). Actually this one's a pip, taken in right spirit. Give me old Hollywood in dotage any time. Gable had a deal for one outside pic per annum during his last MGM re-up, but never took it, Lone Star coming close (discussions were had), but kept on home lot for greater comforts accorded, or maybe sweetened terms for the star. Anyway, Vincent Sherman was tabbed to direct, not normally a Metro hire, having come up at Warners and now free-lance (he says in memoir Studio Affairs that he did Lone Star for $75K). Sherman recalled a bad script he was stuck with. Promises were made for a fix, but that never got done. Studio Affairs, a terrific Hollywood reveal, tells of pix hewed to schedules no matter a lack of prep time or proper story. In other words, go ahead and make your bad product and hope for the best.

Gable Confers with Creative Staff On MGM Backlot

Sherman was told of Gable developing Parkinson's, tremors a result of stress or tiring. It's not apparent in Lone Star, so measures worked. To Gable's otherwise appearance, there is echo of Rhett Butler in dress outfits wherein he romances Ava Gardner (and she sings to him, an awkward exchange). Gone With The Wind was a long shadow over the King's subsequent career. Every few years it would circulate to remind everyone how much more dynamic he'd once been. Lone Star seems to have worn dog tags from early on, to read Sherman's account. A man's honesty was tested by whether or not he said Lone Star had a "good" script. To say "yes" was to brand yourself a "whore," according to Sherman. The director had to go through rite of passage with vet cameraman Hal Rosson along these lines, Rosson having been around MGM since time (or movies) began. Sherman's book really gives insight as to what a resigned process formula moviemaking could be ...

Gable Squares Off with B. Crawford's Stuntman, Gil Perkins

Sherman recall of Lone Star, and the movie itself, are as vivid a record as could be of mediocrity's acceptance amidst a system in decline. I was more entertained by elements gone wrong than few got right. For an action story, there's precious little, and most of that saved for the end (Sherman said they used the backlot as economy measure). Reliance on doubles for Gable-B. Crawford is to a point where stuntmen should have got screen credit, Gable sitting a horse before process screens, but seemingly no place else. Lone Star was profitable despite deficiencies: a worldwide $4.1 million in rentals, which demonstrated how reliable action subjects still were, w/$1.1 million in profits ($1.6 million spent on the negative). Gable may have been perceived as slipping, but his vehicles still made money, and indeed only two for MGM after the war (Command Decision and Never Let Me Go) sustained loss. His popularity was too ingrained to ever really go away. Lone Star has played Warner Instant in HD, and is available from Warner Archive.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Here's Harry!

The Joy Of Metro Movietone Revues

This was a first of four one-reel subjects included as bonus on The Broadway Melody DVD, Revues being MGM answer to Vitaphone shorts done by Warner Bros. Each was like a vaudeville turn, twelve-thirteen minutes, but with three or more numbers by assorted artists. Emcee is Harry Rose --- outlandishly prissy by modern measure --- watchers need reminding that many an effective stage man went all out w/fey gesturing ... just recall Eddie Cantor or Jack Benny in performance --- yet here was basis for much of humor they made. Would we prefer he-man monologists/vaude M.C.'s? For all their gifts, I doubt Richard Dix or Jack Holt could have played the Palace. Harry Rose worked a long, and at times successful, career, known as "Broadway's Jester," and immortalized here for sterling render of "Frankfurter Sandwiches," a number which must be seen/heard to be believed. As an excerpt and sampling of way-out vaudeville, it is second only to Gus Vinner and His Singing Duck. Rose would enter with "Here's Harry!," as if we already knew, and his telling would be superfluous. Acts he brackets, other than headlining Van and Schenck, could use footnotes --- who, for instance, was child singer Grace Rogers, and what became of her? Then there are The Capitolians, who did house music for Loews' Broadway site. Metro Movietone Revue I, and others of the group, are highly recommended, but you can see Harry exult over Frankfurters anytime at You Tube.
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