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Thursday, November 27, 2014

More Of Bette Davis For Thanksgiving

BD Goes Drunk Driving With Oscar! --- The Star (1952)

Bette Davis passed on Come Back, Little Sheba, but did this. She'd later admit the mistake, forfeiting Sheba that is, for which Shirley Booth got the AA. The Star, however, was worthy to Davis estimate. Its story suited her, always a first consideration with this actress. She felt The Star was accurate re crash/burn of H'wood names past a prime, which Davis herself was by 1952, but not to degrading extent of her "Margaret Elliot" here. Was Margaret based on a specific fallen star? Drama looks lifted from life, Joan Crawford's according to Davis and screenwriters later. If they were having a laugh at Crawford expense, it was ill-timed. In 1952's case of Davis v. Crawford, it was decision JC, as her indie-produced Sudden Fear became the year's sleeper hit against tepid $808K in domestic rentals for The Star (foreign $368K). There ought to be a book about former contract players on their own in the 50's and which ones made right moves. Crawford may have been the desperate "star" to Davis the "actress," but decade scorecard suggests it was Joan who had sharper commercial instinct.

Happiest circumstance of The Star was not enough cash to dress stages and a backlot (producing Bert Friedlob renting what studio space he'd use), so out went cast/crew to L.A. actuals for what amounted to semi-doc of biz environ as it curdled under onslaught of TV and leisure preferred over picture-going. Davis didn't let vanity get in way of honest characterization. We anticipate What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? as faded BD trolls bleached streets in quest of a comeback that won't happen. She had to know some would look at The Star and say, Ah yes, Davis playing herself. This may the actress' best perf between All About Eve and Jane Hudson. Her Margaret Elliot has the clinger family, as did Davis, and there's arrest for drunk driving that happened lots to Gold Agers but was covered up by studios in control of law in and outside gates. There's highlight of Davis/Elliot clerking lingerie in a department store, this more a fate of actresses by the 60's than 50's, so it's at least prophetic. Still, there were instances in 1952 where customers could approach a counter and be waited on by a one-time star. Not a few silent era survivors found themselves at such impasse. Groceries were seldom free to former celebs.

Bert Friedlob was another of lone wolves chewing meat that was left on industry's husk. By '52, you had to be fast and cheap to realize indie profit. Bert had done some good ones, The Fireball and The Steel Trap, so earned trust of Davis. Timing was right for she and Friedlob to get together. Some parts of The Star were even shot in the producer's home, another plus and welcome peek of how at least one busy producer lived at the time. Compare another insider story from 1952, The Bad and The Beautiful, with The Star, the former a very "Hollywood" treatment about Hollywood, done with maximum Metro gloss, while The Star, cheap and gritty, shows more honestly a town in full flail before 3-D/Cinemascope hypo came to temporary rescue. The Star could be teaching tool for courses on the Classic Era. It sure reflects that mirror cracking. Warner Instant has The Star streaming in HD, and there's a DVD available.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Davis On The Downhill --- Winter Meeting (1948)

Frost had set upon Bette Davis at Warners. Her last, Deception, lost money. Then came year off for another marriage and resultant child. Interim saw WB trimming costs to combat a slump gripping theatres since record year 1946. Part of reason Deception bled red was sum spent on it, $2.8 million the neg cost. That seemed long-ago, what with belts now tightened. Winter Meeting was done for $1.9 million, still too much for the hit it wound up taking (over a million). And so Davis' cookie began crumbling, the start of her finish at Warners. Winter Meeting, despite some good ideas, performances, and drama done well in part, lacked hard edge even woman pics needed after the war. No one dies in it, let alone kills anybody else. Pistols in the purse had become standard, in fact, necessary equipment for hothouse actresses. Joan Crawford was naked without hers, and now came Davis, eclipsed by Crawford on her home lot, playing love tag with unknown James (later better known as "Jim") Davis, who'll not give BD a tumble for preferring priesthood. Hang the crepe, said WB bookkeepers --- here was where showmen could vacuum floors 'neath empty seating.

Davis later said she knew, in fact realized from start, that Winter Meeting was a clinker. Blame that on censorship, rife at the time, a grievance she took to press, a bold stroke during contract era when stars were paid as much to keep mouths shut as act. If Davis told interviewers her movie was a cop-out, why should anyone bother with Winter Meeting? Some of blame, then, might reasonably go to her. Jack L. had lost patience in any event. Davis was behaving as if her stuff was still hot at the stalls. Did he clue her to how far receipts had dropped? Based on distrust between management and talent, I wonder if BD would have believed a word JL said. One area where the company skimped was location shooting, that is none of it for Winter Meeting, a Gotham-set story where at least a second unit might have ventured there for urban color. Selznick would do as much for Portrait Of Jennie, to great enhance of the finished movie, but Winter Meeting conveys neither NY or winter itself over reels of indoor talk.

A Major Plus Is Waspish John Hoyt as BD Confidante
So strapping Jim Davis, his character named "Slick" Novak, chooses reverse collar over Davis favors. What if she'd been Lana Turner or Gene Tierney? As it is, any of us might go monastic after squint at BD in free-fall toward forty (that B'day celebrated as Winter Meeting played off). On Davis, 40 looked more fiftyish, hers an engine fueled on nervous tension and cigarettes. Some of shots in Winter Meeting betray her badly, one close-up a hark-back to flattering pre-war, followed by another that looks like Storm Center or The Catered Affair arrived early. BD needed camera attention like MGM would have given her, or maybe a Joe Von Sternberg in consultant capacity as Selznick arranged for Jennifer Jones and Duel In The Sun. Still, it was Davis, and acting was what she sold, but were fans and scrapbook-keepers still aboard? Falling receipts suggested not, but this was all of Hollywood's problem, not just hers. As to skill, no one denied Davis still had it, and undiminished, but the vehicles needed to be something really special to pry patronage from suburban housing, night baseball, and soon enough television, these part of nationwide kick of a movie habit. They'd see and enjoy her in event that was All About Eve, an ensemble she couldn't claim sole credit for, but cans labeled "Bette Davis" sat increasingly on shelves. But again, that was struggle most of pics and all of her generation faced.

The end of Winter Meeting, but Bette will be back tomorrow in The Star.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Spooky Stuff In Pittsburgh

Materializing To Twist and Frankenstein Accompany For 1963

Greenbriar seeking "Starlet" Bobbi Dukes! I tried IMDB, Google, Net search beyond. Came up snake eyes. I thought at least she might have danced as background to a beach pic for Jim and Sam, but no trace (at least she'd do the Twist for this engagement). I'm beginning to doubt Bobbi was really a "starlet," but since when did that matter to attendees at a Pittsburgh spook show circa 1963? I guessed '63 for this ad and show because it's "Ethreal" materialization of Liz Taylor as Cleopatra they're selling hardest (re ethreal: should misspelling or use of non-existent words be forgiven in movie ads?). You had to be there to know how hot Liz was when Cleopatra came out. My neighbor's sixth grade was bused to Winston-Salem for a school day matinee, but mothers kept several of class home because Cleopatra was a "dirty" movie. One boy hid a souvenir program under his mattress. Liz wasn't nude in Cleopatra, but nearly so at times. Of course, kids who'd seen it told others who hadn't that she was (a same neighborhood problem we had with Natalie Wood and Gypsy). "Frankenstein In Person" was expected, as was Monsters Torturing Beautiful Girls. "One Dead Body" as a door prize causes me to wonder --- why not two? Screen fare was what theatre/drive-ins could get for cheap. The Screaming Skull and The Headless Ghost would be on TV within months of their play-off here. Note borrowed art from Blood Of Dracula and some or another AIP chiller besides ones that were showing. Jim Nicholson took dim view of such pilfer and in fact, threatened to sue showmen appropriating imagery from one shocker to promote another. There was, after all, truth in advertising at stake.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Fox Wants a Pre-Sold Western

Free-Lancing Gable Does The Tall Men (1955) For 20th

Clark Gable gone to 20th Fox from years at Metro, with new employers doing him a better turn in terms of pay (% participation), plus lavish showcasing. Darryl Zanuck had bought the source novel with reservations, calling it "a very third-rate book from the standpoint of publication and sales." Still, there was epic potential, DFZ aware that The Tall Men would be "a colossal undertaking ... it cannot be touched for less than $3,5000,000 and be done the way it should be done, particularly with an all-star cast." The studio chief had been considering a remake of The Iron Horse, an outstanding Fox success from the silent era, and wondered, "Would it be possible to combine these two properties and utilize the famous classic title, The Iron Horse?" Weakness inherent in The Tall Men's novel source might be tempered by the older film's residual prestige: "As you can see, I am trying in some way to tie this story up with a pre-sold title or something that will give it distinction."

What The Tall Men finally morphed to was variant on Red River, Gable a less cantankerous trail boss than John Wayne in the earlier Hawks western. There was, in fact, another Hawks behind cameras, Howard's brother William serving as co-producer (he had brought the property to Zanuck's attention), while direction was ideally vested in Raoul Walsh, duplicating some of effects achieved in years earlier The Big Trail, to wit Indian raids and wagons being lowered down cliff faces. Zanuck might have tendered a Big Trail remake if not for historic loss posted by that 1930 western, which he (and Fox bookkeepers) would have regarded as anything but a "famous classic" or "pre-sold" title. Critics expressed relief at having Gable back in parts worthy of him, Metro having served weak tea in final years of the King's contract (other than notable exception Mogambo). His persona had long since achieved mythic status. Script conference notes from 7/29/54 refer to the Jane Russell character, "Nella," preferring "Ben" (CG), "because he is a man like Clark Gable."

The Tall Men needs watching on widest screens, Blu-ray preferable (from Region 2 in that format), as the story clunks a bit now and then. Do we really care if Gable and Jane Russell settle their romantic differences in the face of larger, landscape-wide issues? Thousands of cow heads in evidence, the largest herd ever rounded up for a film, it was said, and Fox dropped $3.1 million on the negative, a figure somewhat lower than Zanuck had forecast. Ad art played games with Jane Russell's embedded image, "They Don't Come Any Bigger!" a tagline set below her in full-length pose. Of course they were referring to The Tall Men, in case anyone asked ... or objected. If the picture had come out better, Fox might have tried roadshowing The Tall Men. As it was, there came $6.5 from worldwide rentals, that not enough to put the show in profit (part of reason was  large grosses chunk due Gable), but later sale to NBC for two network runs, 10/19/63 and 9/26/64, plus syndication booty, turned red ink to black. The Region Two Blu-Ray is outstanding, and highly recommended.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Another 30's Service Hitch

Scott and Bellamy Dueling For Dee in Coast Guard (1939)

1939 may have the greatest year for movies by some reckoning, but they sure didn't figure Coast Guard into calculations. Still, it was humble B's like this that propped stuff we now call classic, and one could surely not do without the other. CG rehashes service yarns back to Capra and Flight, Dirigible, etc., only minus bigness of these. Ralph Bellamy is Jack Holt's substitute, a credit to the uniform, but hopeless in ways of love, thus Frances Dee collapsing into arms of wolf patrolling Randolph Scott, beginning, middle, and end reliably charted from there. We're no more sophisticated at divining such formula than 30's attendance, much less so, I'd suspect, but it was easy familiarity of these that made programmers welcome on dual-bills --- after all, didn't popcorn taste always the same? Action highlights were where most effort was applied, in this case wrecks and rescues at sea utilizing model work that belied budget limitation of the rest. We're there for the "mission" and never mind who gets the girl, that being foregone conclusion to experienced moviegoers in any case. Columbia saluted each branch of US military, repeatedly through the 30's, as would all majors and what independents could afford uniforms, message implicit that we're ready for whatever comes.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Civil War Battlefields With Sound

Griffith Takes Up Talk with Abraham Lincoln (1930)

D.W. Griffith effort at talkie comeback has gotten razz from critic/historians since time it was new, but rehab comes with Blu-Ray access and wherewithal to see/hear the thing properly. It's a 96 minute stride through key moments of a known-well life, vignettes done brief so as not to dawdle over familiar ground. This is vivid instance where quality makes all the difference. I sat through UHF-PD squalor in the 70's when that was all you got of Lincoln and assumed from there it was largely a dud --- well, what wouldn't be, given that sort of squint down a coke bottle? DWG compositions are the usual great and he moves his camera besides, Abraham Lincoln even or well ahead of talkies done in that uncertain year. Abe took $576K in domestic rentals against $720K spent on the negative (don't know foreign, but it likely wasn't great for this Americana subject). Was 1930 patronage cool to US history topics? The Big Trail came out a same year to similar fate. I wonder if the Birth Of A Nation sound reissue (also '30) might actually have done better. Walter Huston looks and walks the Lincoln part; we could speculate too on what or how many details of his performance were shaped by Griffith. What a difference it might have made had this been a hit. Would there have been a new cycle of DWG epics? ... remakes of his silent classics, but now with talk? Awkward scenes in Abraham Lincoln are outnumbered by many that play splendid. I'm hopeful the pic will win new laurels now that HD has rode to Griffith's rescue.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Tracking Another Cartoon Obscurity

What Looks Like a Tire with Hubcap in The Water Is Actually
Early Go at a Raindrop By Effects Innovator Cy Young

Jingles (1931-2) Offers Early Color and Animated Effects

Another cartoon lost, then found. This one's so obscure, there's even debate as to its title. So why bother? Well, reason one might be Walt Disney's close inspect of this early 30's animated reel meant to boost the "Brewstercolor" process, limited to two essential hues and effort to simulate others (Disney kept an eagle eye on other people's cartoons). But color wasn't what intrigued Walt about Jingles, or Mendelssohn's Spring Song, as it would become better known. What he went for was effects work with raindrops, blooming flowers, other captures of nature by Cy Young, a Chinese artist said to have pioneered cartoons in his native country before emigrating to the US. Young gave life to inanimate objects and made flora, fauna breathe in ways Disney liked and wanted to co-op for his own Silly Symphony group. He'd hire Young on basis of Jingles and put him to effects work on shorts, then ambitious features Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia ... wherever fires licked or floods came, you could be assured Cy Young was back of the magic.

I read of Young's productive, and ultimately tragic, life/career in an outstanding chapter of  just-published Walt's People: Volume 15, another from editor Didier Ghez's sterling series made up of interviews with past Disney staff. Steven Hartley wrote the piece, a beautiful job of research and insight (he has a webpage as well, devoted to WB cartoons). Here is where I learned of Jingles, and was guided yet again to newest of Thunderbean's treasure groups, Technicolor Dreams and Black-and-White Nightmares, where the short is part of a Blu-Ray line-up. It's a color print, the lone survivor as rescued by historian Steve Stanchfield from a private collection. Like previously covered Goofy Goat by Ted Eshbaugh, Jingles floated for years as black-and-white only, one of those cartoon oddities no one could quite figure origin of. The only theatre playdate I found was May 1932 at Manhattan's Little Carnegie Playhouse. Otherwise, it seemed a goner other than 16mm monochrome for later TV or sale as home movies. Jingles' inclusion on Technicolor Dreams and Black-and-White Nightmares is another reason to relish this Blu-Ray collection of rarities, and opportunity to glimpse a Disney artist at career beginning.
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