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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Forgotten But Not Gone --- My Son John

As hunters go in pursuit of some rare and exotic quarry, we drove two and a half hours last week so I could realize a near lifetime desire of seeing My Son John, which was shown in 35mm at the splendid North Carolina Museum Of Art. Some of you know Raleigh merely as that place where Barney Fife eventually went to work and was mistreated by Richard X. Slattery, but in actuality, it’s our state capital and has one of the best classic film series going thanks to The Movie Diva, whose efforts for the Museum have yielded many rare screenings, but none so remarkable as this wounded survivor out of Paramount vaults. The only print of My Son John they had, so I was told, and its oft-warped struggle projecting was the result of dreaded vinegar syndrome, that curse of safety film and celluloid’s equivalent of terminal cancer. My Son John has been buried alive for fifty-two years. It is the bastard offspring of many distinguished careers. Leo McCarey was pilloried for directing it. Helen Hayes regretted coming out of movie retirement to make it, and Robert Walker died before they could finish it. Misinformation was put out on My Son John months before release and a lot of that is still in circulation. I've not heard of the film being shown on television since ABC had a single Sunday Night At The Movies run around 1970. Syndication listings did not reflect My Son John in any US available package, though Paramount still owns the negative. TCM recently made a deal with the latter to broadcast a large group of features starting in a few months (I noticed Union Station coming up in January). Will My Son John finally resurface there? --- a phoenix rising out of ashes much like Paramount's neglected Ace In The Hole, also difficult to see until recently? I don’t expect DVD exposure. Would even Criterion embrace a feature so discredited? One that’s been described variously as hysterical, malignant, embarrassing, McCarthyite, idiotic, paranoid? Appropriate perhaps that the Museum’s print be tainted with vinegar, for My Son John remains a pariah best handled with sterilized gloves, as hot a social and political potato as it ever was.

Leo McCarey had been a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Prior to that, he’d supervised Laurel and Hardy, made screwball comedies, and produced/directed a pair of smash hits about priests and nuns (Going My Way and The Bells Of St. Marys). He was devoutly Catholic and deplored Communism’s dismissal of religion. It was only natural that McCarey would catch a wave of films attacking totalitarianism in the early fifties. Most were easily digestible spy and espionage melodramas wherein ideology took a back seat to chase action and sneaked documents. Slinky women would cast nets to ensnare otherwise loyal Americans as malcontented weaklings turned traitor in hopes of money and power. It took Yanks with the mettle of a John Wayne to overcome them (and indeed, it was his Big Jim McClain that alone would profit from the Red Scare cycle). Robert Ryan, John Agar, Robert Taylor, and others purloined secrets on behalf of the Party during a half-decade’s run of alarmist thrillers. Virtually all of these, including The Red Danube, Conspirator, The Iron Curtain, and The Woman On Pier 13, lost money. A heavy hand of propaganda reflected industry anxiety over public perception of Hollywood’s own loyalty. The HUAC was busily ferreting out movie-making Communists even as these films strove to reassure everyone of that town’s unswerving patriotism. Studios probably knew their ledger ink would end up as red as regimes they were attacking, but with Hollywood itself under siege, such gestures, even if unprofitable, had to be made. Leo McCarey departed from these by focusing on Communism’s impact on the American family. He viewed the latter as unwitting incubator for youth misguided by too much education as imparted by highbrowed intellectuals ready to take over from within now that we’d won the war against fascism. Helen Hayes and Dean Jagger play parents invaded by would-be body snatching son Robert Walker, he of suspect graduation from University and black sheep among brothers otherwise shipping off to Korea to fight for their country. Had My Son John been properly completed, there might have been stuff here for quite a movie, as it does reflect heartland fear of sinister and barely understood forces preparing to take over. No wonder science fiction found this a fertile ground for exploration, the American public having readily equated Communist threats with alien encroachment. Whether such fears were rational or not was beside the point.

Leo McCarey was already in decline when he began My Son John. There were complications over substance abuse, and he’d directed only one feature since The Bells Of St.Marys, a Gary Cooper vehicle called Good Sam. Both these were profitable, the first immensely so. McCarey’s approach was highly improvisational. He’d come on the set most mornings and noodle at a piano while searching his mind for ideas. Helen Hayes said he threw out the script for My Son John and every day was chaos. The picture was in production through the summer of 1951 and indeed had much work still to complete when co-star Robert Walker suddenly died over the weekend of August 25. Nothing about this was expected. Walker had been in and out of rehab during the last several years, but fortunes were looking up after his triumph in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train. Now he was gone and McCarey was stuck with a picture only half finished. Damage control necessitated white lies for the press. I have worked closely with Bob during these past few months and learned to know him as both a fine gentleman and a great actor. We had our final working session together only last Saturday. At that time he showed no indication of being in ill health. On the contrary, he did his final recording with great zest. I had just run the rough-cut of the picture for him, and, although a modest fellow, he fairly beamed at the results, said McCarey to The New York Times, while The Motion Picture Herald was assured that Walker had just completed work in My Son John. With a final negative cost of $1.8 million, this was not an investment Paramount could write off. Such breakdowns were not unheard of, as there were minor players often replaced due to unexpected death or disability, and most famously there was Jean Harlow and her demise during Saratoga. Disasters subsequent to My Son John would be covered by cast insurance. Montgomery Clift’s auto crash and attendant delays on Raintree County were compensated, while United Artists collected for losses sustained when Tyrone Power collapsed and died more than halfway through Solomon and Sheba. Leo McCarey had no such out. My Son John would somehow have to be completed.

In fact, it should never have been released. My Son John plays like a jigsaw puzzle with parts missing and others jammed into place. The crude surgery goes way beyond mere patching of Walker footage from Strangers On A Train to cover for an ending they needed. Truth finally willed out in 1969 when McCarey sat down with interviewer Peter Bogdanovich and gave his account of the salvaging. The director was by then near the end of his life and My Son John had been out of circulation for years. I like it. It would have been a great picture if Bob Walker had lived --- it might have been my best picture. McCarey then admitted what critics and viewers had to suspect in 1952. We were right in the middle of shooting. The whole crew was as floored as I was. Salaries were stopped and everybody went to work on other pictures. We stopped shooting for three months. Now it was necessary for this veteran since silents to use all the tricks I’d learned trying to transform the few scenes we’d shot into a real film. That job would take another twelve weeks. My Son John was not released until seven months after Walker’s death. In the meantime, McCarey had to change his ending altogether and cobble scenes out of outtakes and doubling gymnastics. Vital story points play out torturously during telephone conversations between chattering cast survivors and slowed-down-to-a-crawl footage of Walker standing in booths or reacting to something other than the scene he’s now been grafted onto. McCarey had become a filmmaking Baron Frankenstein attempting to breathe life into something irretrievably dead. The referred to by others finish was indeed made up of footage from Strangers On A Train, as are scenes of Walker riding through Washington just prior to his onscreen demise (there’s even a brief shot where he consults a pivotal lighter that caused so much trouble for Farley Granger in the Hitchcock film!). McCarey matted Walker’s head and shoulders (from S.O.A.T.) into a shot of the actor’s My Son John character dying in the back of a taxicab shot up by Communist assassins, going so far as to personally dub in dialogue for the deceased player. McCarey was many wonderful things as a director, but he was not a convincing vocal stand-in for Robert Walker. It had never been his intention to kill off the character in any case (the public and New York critics would see to that). By soon-to-be happy coincidence, Walker had made his rehearsal recording of a climactic speech (two days before his death) that McCarey was now able to impose upon a final reel as clumsily executed as it is uncomfortable to watch. Everyone at Paramount had to realize this unfinished hodgepodge would win few laurels, but an April 1952 opening date was looming. What choice but to release it and let chips fall where they may?

Reviews would be split along ideological lines. The New York Times excoriated My Son John and an indignant McCarey flew into town for a reckoning. He’d been slighted as a director, insulted as an artist, and libeled as a human being. The same sort of highbrows that misled his benighted character were now calling McCarey a bigot and trashing his movie all over the New York press. There were champions at the ready to defend him however, and they wielded a lot more influence. The American Legion had tied in with Paramount when advance screenings assured them this was their kind of picture. Now on board with a Legion-sponsored premiere (as shown here with its honor guard), they generated literature to further encourage attendance. We forget today just how powerful the Legion was at that time. This was the combined fighting force of two World Wars and now they were taking up arms against Communism. Harrison’s Reports warned exhibitors not to cross them. Legion agitation and picketing had already sunk Columbia’s Death Of A Salesman owing to suspect political sympathies on the part of playwright Arthur Miller. Protective measures recommended by Harrison’s included the purchase of The Star Spangled Banner from National Screen, a trailer that would cost $6.50 and play seventy seconds at the beginning and end of each theatre’s day. As patriotic Americans, we must take aggressive steps to obliterate any blight of "red" or "pink" that may attach itself to our theatres. Patrons in many situations were encouraged to stand and salute during the trailer. With regards The American Legion, editors at The Motion Picture Herald minced no words. You can do well to be on their side of a controversy. McCarey was, and appeared to benefit by it. Legion honors were accorded and he basked in praise from the Catholic Institute as well. The photo here shows him being awarded after guest speaking at a communion breakfast in the same New York where he’d so recently been vilified. You’d think a film so polarizing might catch a little boxoffice by virtue of its controversy, but My Son John sunk like a stone. Domestic rentals of $895,000 were the best it could scrape up. Against that $1.8 million spent, this was plain disaster for Paramount and McCarey. Variety had been on record with a warning: It faces selling difficulties because of the usual public indifference to propaganda pix. Henceforth, anti-Communist messages would be delivered via giant ants, jet pilots, and lone cowpokes fighting totalitarianism on the plains, while My Son John, deemed dated and useless as yesterday’s editorial page, limped off into oblivion where it’s very likely to stay another fifty-five years. The fact my long delayed screening smelled faintly of vinegar might even have appealed to the comic, if not ironic, side of Leo McCarey’s complicated nature.

UPDATE: Although I still find no evidence of its having been syndicated on US television, My Son John was available for 16mm rental from Films Inc. during the seventies, being featured in their Rediscovering The American Cinema catalogues from that period. Thanks to David Martin, whose e-mail about having seen My Son John in 16mm has been posted in the comments section.

And more on My Son John in a Greenbriar update HERE. There is also a further updated chapter on the film in Showmen, Sell It Hot!.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Greenbriar Weekend Marquee

Dark Journey is a Spy vs. Spy romance of World War One coming on the eve of the Second World War. It was produced by Alexander Korda in 1937. US exhibitors resisted British features because of perceived troubles over accents. Many complained their audiences couldn’t understand what was being said. United Artists released Dark Journey, but domestic rentals stalled at $76,000. Somehow Raymond Rohauer ended up with the negative, and it’s available out of England on Region 2. Even if they stood still and read phone books, it would be enough having Conrad Veidt and Vivien Leigh teamed, though you wish they’d done so under Alfred Hitchcock’s direction rather than workmanlike Victor Saville. Still, these are enjoyable intrigues as played out amidst glistening nightclub sets, U-boats, and secret decoding rooms. British filmmakers, including Hitchcock, relied upon models and miniatures for many of their exteriors. Must have been the uncertain weather over there. It’s fun spotting toy trains chugging along just ahead of cutaways to club car interiors. State secrets and battle plans are here sewn into the latest fashions sold in Vivien Leigh’s chic dress shop, and translated by way of draping them over lamp shades decorated with coded maps. Operatives are designated as X-4, D-12, whatever --- seldom have numerals been so exotically utilized. It took me the whole of ninety minutes to figure out which side who was on. Vivien Leigh appears loyal to the Kaiser, then at halfway point reveals her double-agentry, much in the way seeming Hollywood traitors would emerge true blue in espionage thrillers like Across The Pacific, Northern Pursuit, and even out west in Springfield Rifle. Spy business in Dark Journey is conducted in tuxedoes and evening gowns on moonlit balconies. There’s nothing by way of political discourse. People are for or against France and Germany for reasons they keep to themselves. Without a real war going on in the background, thrillers like Dark Journey could focus purely on the romance of espionage, never the ideologies behind it. With Veidt and Leigh to look at and listen to, we’d not be concerned with the latter in any case. How could anyone watching Leigh in 1938 imagine she’d not be spirited off to America straightaway? Both Allied and German spies play scrupulously fair in Dark Journey, as this is a gentleman's war they’re fighting. Surely playdates down the UK circuit saw uncomfortable reaction to ultra-civilized Conrad Veidt as newly aggressive Germany pressed further upon England’s shores. Veidt has no peer among offbeat and vaguely sinister leading men. The shadings he brought these parts made all his thirties output watchable, though some of that would be lost with conventional Nazi villain work he had to settle for upon taking up Hollywood residence.

James Cagney’s inclination to protest in the face of vehicle monotony makes sense when you examine his early Warner output laid down in a row. He led with a punch for men and slaps (or worse) for women. Jimmy The Gent was late in this game and Cagney revolted by shaving his head Prussian-style and decorating the exposed scalp with bottle scars, going all out hoodlum as if to parody roles being forced upon him per Warners’ contract. How could his popularity sustain repetition like this? So many stars got wrung out in five years or less. WB was especially callous at bleeding dry, then discarding, talent wearisome upon an excess of curtain calls. Ruth Chatterton and Kay Francis went that way. Dick Powell sung himself hoarse. Cagney fought back and was careerwise the better for it. By Jimmy The Gent, he’d worked so many onscreen cons as to be confused with musketeers of the streets he portrayed. Most income from Cagney was got from urban venues. He spoke their language as surely as "B" cowboys represented southeast and western sensibilities. Low volume settings will best serve those venturing to Jimmy The Gent. Everyone bellows, windows get smashed, and doors are all but slammed off hinges. It’s a pace pre-code fans are used to, but the uninitiated might wonder what depression dwellers were putting in their drinks. Everybody’s on the make. Cynical double-dealing is business as usual among characters impliedly just this side of the law, with starvation, not prosperity, right around the corner. Unforgiving depression settings make their behavior understandable, if not admirable. Jimmy The Gent had a negative cost of just $151,000 and ended with profits of $99,000. The next Cagney, He Was Her Man, would be his first to lose money ($12,000), though redirection into service pictures would bring greater profits than ever for the star. I realize Cagney knocked ‘em dead at the Strand (WB’s NYC flagship), but how did rurals take him? Contrasts between Jimmy The Gent and a typical Will Rogers vehicle suggest product continents apart in origin and attitude. Could tastes for one extend to pleasure in seeing the other? Never before or since did movies traffic in such moral and philosophical opposites. Those who would brand thirties’ output formulaic just haven’t seen enough of it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Halloween Harvest For 2007

There were at least thirty vintage horror and sci-fi DVD releases on the chart for this year. What follows is but a sampling of titles fans have long been requesting.

I had thought I’d impress everybody by announcing that The Return Of Dracula was largely lifted from Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt, but better judgment suggested running both titles through a Google search first. Sure enough, hundreds noticed it before me, so I’ll limit remarks on that subject to expression of astonishment at United Artist’s brass for having released such a blatant copy of another man’s work. Shadow Of A Doubt (1943) being fifteen years old when The Return Of Dracula (1958) was released, a public’s short memory could be trusted to see the plagiarists through, and who’d have expected a cheap vampire movie to go poaching on Thornton Wilder? All of which just adds to the fun for us now, as DVD horror completists at long last have The Return Of Dracula on collecting shelves after a seeming eternity’s wait. Brand name monster intrusions into small-town America were not unknown. Dracula had visited our shores in the person of Count Alucard. Kharis the mummy made the trip in 1942 to settle accounts for tomb defilement back home. I never quite understood why Francis Lederer’s vampire king would be so intent on bunking in an upstairs room better suited to a sitcom adolescent. Dracula in suburbia is by definition an iffy proposition, his nocturnal prowlings difficult to confirm due to erratic day-for-night shooting (and a mistimed print?) that left me wondering if this Dracula had indeed overcome his aversion to sunlight. Lederer is persuasive in the title role. I’m told he hated doing it. After all, nobody in 1958 would have considered The Return Of Dracula a career advancement, but as the venerable actor made it into our present century (and attended a Cinecon!), I’d like to think at least a few Monster Kids had opportunity to reassure Lederer that his vampiric exertions had not been in vain. The Return Of Dracula plays like an American-International chiller done right. Effort here to stage a good thriller would have been deemed unnecessary by that company who’d (contemporaneously) offered Blood Of Dracula, a kind of screw-you to audience expectations that nevertheless exceeded The Return Of Dracula in terms of domestic rentals with $364,000 to the latter’s $258,000. Was AIP’s salesmanship the determining factor? Certainly they were better equipped to exploit cheapie horrors than convention bound UA (but how do we account for the fantastic 2.3 million Return Of Dracula earned in foreign territories?). AIP understood too well the complete lack of necessity for putting quality on the screen. Creative effort began and ended at the easel where one-sheets were designed. The Dracula sweepstakes of 1958 (covered previously) would culminate with Universal’s release of the Hammer film, Horror Of Dracula, arriving a month after The Return Of Dracula and consigned to a struggle of differentiating itself from previous efforts (as illustrated by one exhibitor’s ad shown here). Horror would become Universal’s one and only distribution of a Hammer film to crack one million in domestic rentals, it being considered by far the best and most saleable of the Dracula-themed contestants. Had he lived longer and observed greater moderation, would Dracula’s return have been in the person of Bela Lugosi? Lederer’s okay, but imagine the genuine article and what he might have done with this, and for comparison’s sake, consider the number of bookings The Return Of Dracula had (8,718) against those secured by a genuine blockbuster United Artists handled within the same year, Some Like It Hot (20,602). That as much as anything confirms how difficult it was for low-budget genre films to get an investment back, especially since most played on double bills and would thus have to share revenue with companion features.

The Earth Dies Screaming fared worse. 1964 was way late to be peddling black-and-white British sci-fi in domestic markets. This Robert Lippert production came at tail end for what had been a reliably profitable arrangement for low-budget filmmakers, but television, especially color television, was sucking up leisure time once passable in theatres showing modest pics like The Earth Dies Screaming, and those audiences weren’t coming back. Despite a negative cost of just $100,000, distributor 20th Century Fox took a loss of $14,000, this due to US rentals of only $93,000, surely a new low for science fiction handled by a major company. I was among those loyal in 1964. You could run Gandy Goose at the Liberty in those days and somebody would show up, as we weren’t much impacted by color TV until several years later. The Earth Dies Screaming was an especial thrill to see again on a newly released Midnight Movies DVD. It clocks at 62 taut minutes. Characters are besieged in a deserted village by alien invaders. That’s an old dodge among economy minded producers needing to confine action along limited and manageable locations. They did as much in 1954 with Target Earth, but that wasn’t nearly so good as The Earth Dies Screaming. Robots here are a lot more menacing, even if they are just men in metallic suits with helmets. Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher borrows from Village Of The Damned and the Quatermass series. The atmosphere of all these fine British chillers is very much of a piece. See one and it’s likely you’ll welcome more along similar lines. Their very modesty is what endears me to them. None reach beyond a low-budget grasp. Wonder how British players felt having (always!) American leading men pulling fat out of the fire for them. In The Earth Dies Screaming, it’s Willard Parker, a can-do sort best known for a western TV series he’d had in the US. Parker doesn’t look ashamed to be here, unlike Yank headliners too clearly slumming in small British sci-fi. Seeing The Earth Dies Screaming in crisply rendered widescreen amounts to happy rediscovery among former gray-market video dwellers too long deprived of this nifty little show.

While Susan Hayward flailed about with whiskey bottles and gas chambers, Coleen Gray was performing near Oscar-worthy feats of her own against aesthetic and budgetary odds few actresses could have overcome. They’ll not celebrate The Leech Woman as harbinger for female empowerment in movies, but this admittedly jaded viewer of coarsened tastes would prefer it all day to preening and self-conscious girl power hectoring we get on screens today. Good ideas bungled are a hallmark of low-budget sci-fi filmmaking. Maybe that’s what keeps me keyed throughout 77 minute running times in hopes they’ll get something right along the way. Lethargy here comes aplenty, but when The Leech Woman lights up, it’s aglow in ways mainstream 50’s shows seldom were. There’s a feel of cast and crew cutting loose in secure knowledge that only kids will be watching. Coleen Gray says they shot it in nine days. Make-up was primitive and torturous. Two hours to put on, two more to get off. It’s a wonder these people have any skin left. As a matter of fact, I’m told a lot of veterans have complexions like dried parchment --- real-life leech men and women doubtlessly regretting years they submitted to cosmetic transfigurations. Eternal youth themes have been underutilized in movies, possibly because the concept at least borders on fantasy, and most high-profile actresses seldom went there. Silent star Corinne Griffith did an interesting spin on reversing the age process in 1924’s Black Oxen. Those weirdly controversial goat gland treatments women sought in the twenties got movie mileage then, but little was heard of the discredited procedure afterward. The essential thrust of any such eternal youth tale is that one should never seek to retard the aging process, and woe betides those who try. There’s fun in watching Coleen Gray replenishing her unholy potion, going from vixen to crone and back again as she dips hands further in blood. Incidental truths oft unspoken in male/female relations are voiced here as well. Gee, are girls so disposable once they get old? is a question youngsters might well have asked in 1960 as they sat through The Leech Woman waiting for co-feature Brides Of Dracula to get underway, and to that, the film answers a resounding Yes.

Robert L. Lippert’s name was a banner flying over innumerable small budgeters from the mid-forties to the mid-sixties. This past year has been something of an inadvertent celebration of all things Lippert. VCI carries a line of loosely defined Film Noirs produced under his imprinteur, plus a series they call Noir Westerns (Little Big Horn with Lloyd Bridges?!?). Add to this a trio of Samuel Fuller starters, three he did that have been long out of circulation (I Killed Jesse James, The Baron Of Arizona, and The Steel Helmet). These are rewards of Kit Parker having purchased an extensive library of Lippert negatives, probably one of the last major independent groups to be scooped up for DVD exploitation. Horror and science fiction for 20th Fox distribution are surfacing as well. The Earth Dies Screaming was a Lippert film. So was Curse Of The Fly and Witchcraft, both just out on disc as well. Robert Lippert made movies to have something to put on all those theatre screens he owned. Exhibition was mother’s milk for this orphan boy (literally a foundling left on the doorstep) who pumped organs in silent houses and pinch hit for projectionists after deducing school was a waste of time. He traveled backwood exhibiting routes and met every showman worth knowing. Lippert had a better sense of shows people wanted than anyone before or since. Depending on who you listen to, he’s said to have invented dish night, popcorn in theatres, the multiplex, and Jack Nicholson. Lippert had no peer at laying out ads. His was the glad hand. A word is my bond man. The go-to for youngsters starting in the field. Even after seeing his name on 246 features, Lippert liked nothing more than day-to-day in the fifty-three houses (from a high of 183) he still operated in late career. He made ‘em, sold ‘em, then went back and made more, never losing sight of what ordinary folks were buying. Here’s a dapper Lippert, second from left, conferring with Debbie Reynolds on the set of I Love Melvin during an exhibitor’s confab at MGM in May 1952. Motion Picture Herald picked him (yet again) for Exhibitor Of The Month in August 1967. By then, he’d retired from producing. Witchcraft was among the final ones.

Lippert had no pretense toward being a creative producer. The only times he watched rushes was to look for good stuff he could put in trailers. It’s for this reason a lot of talent was able to put over their vision without meddling, so long as budgets were adhered to and schedules kept. Lippert pics were done on the extreme cheap. Shows like Witchcraft were either made for pennies, or not at all. Amazing you could still do a feature in 1964 for $104,000, yet this was Witchcraft’s negative cost, riding double with another Lippert called The Horror Of It All, which indeed it was. These represented an inglorious last stand for black-and-white combos before times and market conditions put paid to monochromatic filmmaking. Witchcraft grabbed $190,000 in domestic rentals, $131,000 foreign, for a worldwide $321,000. It managed $49,000 in profits during a year when virtually every other Fox release lost money. Gimmick selling was on its last legs. A so-called witch deflector was to come with receipt of your admission quarter, but most theatres passed (for fear kids would try swallowing them?). As far as down-and-out exhibs were concerned, the suckers were either coming in or they weren’t. Why go to the bother of purchasing, then handing out, silly gimcracks they’d leave all over your floor? Trouble was one-sheets that promised the trinket … and kids requesting them at the window. For myself, I didn’t ask. An eleven-year-old could look at that sparse attendance and know the score. By this time, a witch deflector might as easily deflect patrons, for results the Liberty was getting with these dispirited shows. Witchcraft was shot in Britain. I assume they got Eady money and talent for cheap. It’s Hammer lite, or rather, Hammer cramped. Lon Chaney’s in and out, mostly out, but foul tempered when he’s in. They must have shot his stuff in the afternoons, never a good idea with Lon in single-minded pursuit of his smuggled thermos. The way LC swung that walking stick, I feared for the welfare of fellow players. Hopeful supposition aroused by the Famous Monsters Of Filmland cover shown here were not to be fulfilled in Witchcraft, as nowhere in the film does Chaney preside over witch’s covens so accommodating as to provide near-naked subjects for presumed human sacrifice. In fact, little happens in Witchcraft. Kids today would think us crazy for watching it, the same way one might regard elderly men rhapsodizing over Hoot Gibson. Some day I fully expect to be the only resident in my seniors facility still watching Withcraft (and The Earth Dies Screaming!).

Friday, October 19, 2007

Greenbriar Weekend Marquee

Just how did those fabulous Warner Bros. sets come to be? So many visuals come to mind --- Svengali, Captain Blood, Mildred Pierce, others. The designer’s art that created miracles on the sound stage had to begin on a smaller scale, and usually it was models such as these that led to the creation of full-scale backdrops, both in the studio and on location. Here we see an example of the latter, as Errol Flynn inspects the model blueprint for one of the forts that will be constructed at Agoura (Lasky Mesa), west of the San Fernando Valley, for the 1936 Charge Of The Light Brigade. That edifice would be re-used the following year in Warner’s Another Dawn, and would even turn up in a Technicolor Sybil Jason short that was featured by Warners as a DVD extra.

Legendary art director Anton Grot is shown above with director William Dieterle (left) and Max Reinhardt (center) as they inspect a throne room miniature that Grot has assembled for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was Grot who gave so many Warner features that distinctive look we associate with the studio, having spent over twenty years there between the late silent period and the beginning of the fifties. One of his early assignments was one in which Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. put him in charge of the poster campaign for The Thief Of Bagdad in 1924. Those incredible one-sheets, based on original paintings by Anton Grot, are among the most collectable of movie posters. Here’s a rare shot of Grot putting the finishing touches on the twenty-four sheet for Thief.

That’s director Raoul Walsh inspecting a miniature for one of his They Drive By Night sets in 1940. Note foliage and the little swimming pool. This would eventually became the home of Ida Lupino and ill-fated husband Alan Hale in the film, an impressive set to have been built wholly within the confines of a soundstage at Warners. Excellent movie too, and it’s on DVD. What became of these wonderful models after production was finished? Did the artists and/or builders get to take them home? Maybe for their kids? You’d hate to think they were junked, but I’ve never run across any in my travels. Has anyone? They’d sure make nice conversation pieces …

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Funny Face and Fashion At Fifty

People are aware again of Funny Face not so much as a result of Paramount’s recent reissue of the DVD as its extended appearance in a widely shown GAP commercial in which Audrey Hepburn dances on behalf of the newly revived skinny black pant. Thanks to digital wizardry, something (fifty years) old looks new again, as Hepburn defines fashion for women several generations behind her own. Ask most college girls and they’ll identify this actress first among vintage stars otherwise unknown to them. Marilyn Monroe’s popular too, but in more of a campy, retro way. Audrey’s the one they’d like to be. Her appeal is of a right now sort. The movies can date, but she somehow doesn’t. Young women speak of the ick factor when they observe all those elderly leading men, but they’d never hold that against Hepburn. This girl’s a role model that transcends her era, and for Funny Face’s occasional politically incorrect misdeeds, she will be forgiven. Read, if you don’t already, imdb comments on this and other classic films. These are fans and casual viewers who write from the heart as opposed to wearisome critics and analysts (not excluding yours truly) who long ago lost perspective on what really makes these audience pleasers tick. The older Funny Face gets, the more mixed feelings it’s likely to arouse, but for three things they’ll say it gets wrong, there’ll be one that redeems all of that, for this is a musical filled with moments still hypnotic and evocative of the fifties in ways few others are.

The fashion industry takes it on the chin in Funny Face. Satire of its disordered personalities replaces efficiency shown by magazine executives in 1944’s Cover Girl. Consider Otto Kruger as Rita Hayworth’s mentor in that earlier musical (both shown here). Competent and avuncular, you might find him chairing the board of directors at a steel mill or auto manufacturer. He’s assisted by models well adjusted and competent. Anita Colby was credited as technical advisor on Cover Girl. She and real life top mannequin Jinx Falkenburg are active participants in the fictional Vanity magazine’s search for a new face. Models in Funny Face don’t speak other than to suggest utter vacuity or outright idiocy. Dovima is said to have been the highest paid cover girl in Manhattan during the fifties. Her character (shown here with Astaire) looks like Vampira and does little credit to a presumably glamorous profession. So when did notions of freaks and eccentrics staffing Vogue come into vogue? Was the post-war "New Look" responsible for newly jaundiced views of fashion and its arbiters? Kay Thompson plays martinet and runs roughshod over robotic girl assistants neither modeling nor typing for her. Just what is their function? Cover Girl reflects a healthier environment for the creation of beauty. Funny Face suggests poverty of ideas and a last possible resort that brings Audrey Hepburn into its decaying fashion orbit. She’s right to run away and fast.

You must come from the stone age, says Audrey to Fred, and if appearance (in comparison to her) is any indication, indeed he must. These two together, let alone romantically linked, is incredulity itself. His talent was undiminished, but Astaire’s wardrobe (his selection?) looks fey as do fussy gestures not befitting romantic partners for a twenty-seven year old leading lady (Hepburn’s age). Had Kay Thompson’s role been more attractively conceived (and cast), maybe this character could have been paired with Astaire for a romantic fade. As it is, Thompson was herself nine years his junior. Fred’s game enough for a kiss when he and Hepburn first meet, though it’s startling still to see a figure more appropriately paternal suddenly moving in for the smooch. Astaire had three show-biz decades on Hepburn when they made this. He jumped at working with her, as did she with him. You Make Me Feel So Young might well have been a theme song for the dancing veteran by this time down to his last musicals. I’m doubting he argued when they told him she’d get first billing. Debates over wizened leading men are ongoing among Audrey Hepburn’s fans, so who instigated all these mismatches? She was at least complicit. It was as though this actress was on an endless quest for onscreen father figures. Where before they were clever and individual clothing accessories, Astaire’s white socks, ascots, and ribbon tied belts seem now like old man’s accoutrements. When Audrey in wedding gown dances with Fred in cardigan buttoned once in the middle, you wonder if she’ll soon be waltzing him into assisted living. It was admittedly hard letting go of Astaire as a romantic partner on ballroom floors. Too many fond memories and much reluctance to turning him loose. It’s not as though this man had successors. If Hepburn couldn't dance with Astaire, why make Funny Face at all? I’ve tried imagining alternate casting. Cyd Charisse as Maggie Prescott, with she and Fred in fadeout clinch? Rita Hayworth would have worked. Ginger Rogers sounds ideal, but where would that leave Hepburn? Would she dance with Anthony Perkins, John Kerr, John Derek? There are good reasons why she gravitated to older leading men. The foregoing are three of them. Commercial realities in 1957 dictated that Astaire dance with a younger woman. But for their cross-generational teaming, Funny Face with its $3.164 million negative cost would never have seen the light of day.

Empathicalism was a word invented for the purpose of sending up intellectual phonies and beat generation predators that get in the way of Audrey Hepburn’s modeling career in Funny Face. They sustain a worse drubbing than the fashion industry itself. Others have pointed out an anti-intellectual current running through this musical. Well, the fact it is a musical automatically places Funny Face at odds with any sort of sedentary or cerebral expression. Thinkers here are subdued and seldom on their feet, making them natural opponents to Fred Astaire’s philosophy of movement and physicality. The audience enjoys his ridiculing them because it is Fred who’s providing the entertainment while these leeches cadge drinks off impressionable Audrey. The issue for modern viewers comes when Astaire extends his commentary to include Hepburn’s character. He’s about as interested in your intellect as I am!, he shouts, when they argue over her apparent dalliance with French philosopher Flostre (who naturally turns out to be a rotter and would-be seducer). The fact that Audrey reads automatically makes her a figure of fun. Oh, one of those, Fred says. Astaire and Kay Thompson perform a wicked beatnik spoof to set things right, but did it? I wonder if 1957 audiences weren’t drifting toward an embrace of the longhair’s mindset, with increasingly educated post-war women becoming more resistant to Astaire’s seeming condescension toward them. It’s surely an aspect of Funny Face that gets the goat of femme viewers today. If not for all the dancing and fashion trappings, I wonder if this movie might have fallen off their popularity charts altogether, for much of its social politics is decidedly incorrect.

What if Audrey Hepburn had taken up modeling in the wake of doing so in Funny Face? What kind of revenue could she have generated? The top cover girl of that period was Suzy Parker. She appears in the Think Pink montage. Parker is said to have been the first model to receive one hundred dollars a day (but wait, some sources credit Anita Colby with having accomplished that in the forties). The aforementioned Dovima made her way up to seventy-five per day by the late fifties. It was possible to parlay posing into a hundred grand a year, as Parker eventually did. Of course, these were so many nickels and dimes to movie stars with Audrey Hepburn’s earning power, but what price might she have commanded had Hepburn divided her post-Funny Face working hours between soundstage and runway? You could say that (most) movie stars were really just glorified models to begin with, but look what happened when members of the latter sorority tried their hands at acting. Suzy Parker was Fox’s effort toward animating beautiful (but hitherto motionless) images. She co-starrred with Cary Grant in Kiss Them For Me (he was sufficiently infatuated as to do the screen tests with her) and Gary Cooper in Ten North Frederick. There was a showy part in The Best Of Everything, then mostly television. Today she’s a name primarily recalled by fashion buffs (Vanity Fair did an excellent recap of her life a few years ago). Parker is credited by some as having provided inspiration for Audrey Hepburn’s character in Funny Face. Models often provided offscreen cues for neophyte actresses. Anita Colby (known as The Face) taught style and deportment to David O. Selznick’s contract youngsters, including Jennifer Jones. She’s a poised and assured presence (as herself) in Cover Girl, though little acting followed. Jinx Falkenburg came closest to stardom of a sort, making "B" musicals and comedies for Columbia before (and following) her appearance in Cover Girl (as shown here).

Radio City Music Hall bookings were more about prestige than money. Out of eleven pictures that played there in 1957, six eventually went into the red. Four were musicals. Silk Stockings, The Pajama Game, and Les Girls followed Funny Face into Radio City that year. All but Warner’s Doris Day show lost dollars. Numbers we have on Funny Face indicate a similar fate. The $3.164 million it cost was not recovered in domestic rentals of $2.235. Expensive mainstream releases out of major studios had to open in big ways. Trade advertising craved long lines in front of the Music Hall. Again, it was all about perception. No one wrote or published figures on high allowances Paramount had to make for Radio City’s house expense, astronomical at the least and all the more so by 1957. Funny Face would have to gross a certain (high) amount before film rental kicked in, and worse yet, Paramount was obliged to pay for most of the advertising. Getting into the Music Hall meant clearing the entire New York territory, including all five boroughs. Runs were exclusive there, and for four or more precious weeks, Radio City was the only place NYC audiences could see Funny Face, its massive house nut meanwhile eating up Paramount’s returns. Studio musicals were beginning to look like elephants marching toward the ivory preserves. Faster profits were being realized off millions of kids dropping their allowance on saturation bookings of rock and roll features, most profitably those with Elvis Presley. Hal Wallis produced Loving You for Paramount release on a budget of $1.295 million, less than half the cost of Funny Face. Its domestic rentals of $3.3 million left little doubt as to directions in which musicals were headed. MGM’s Jailhouse Rock was marketed toward youngsters who could ride their bikes to neighborhood theatres. Opening week for this Elvis vehicle found it playing multiple engagements in most territories, including New York as shown here. Saturation made it possible for everyone to buy a ticket while the product was hot, and Jailhouse Rock, produced at a negative cost of $1.1 million, brought back $3.3 in domestic rentals and eventual profits of $1.6 million. Funny Face was caught between modest films like this and roadshow blockbusters that could take their time getting investments back. With the sixties coming on, stuck in the middle musicals were about to be squeezed out.
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