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Monday, January 22, 2018

The Great War's Greatest Telling

How It Was Every Night at Broadway's Astor Theatre --- and For 96 Weeks

The Big Parade (1925) Puts Metro On The Map

Watch this and wonder how stardom got away so suddenly from John Gilbert, who'd have hit after resounding hit in late silent days, then come crashing to earth once talkies made him passé. I'd argue Jack's a best performance of the whole voiceless era here; understated, dynamic when called for, a romancer after believable fashion of ordinary guys who'd be watching. Gilbert had rare capacity for coming down to earth when parts called for him to do so. Shave the mustache and he'd be you or me (Burt Reynolds managed a same thing much later). The secret may have been frankly ordinary looks the man had when bereft of dash or sash. You'd not be amiss confusing him with the Lion's Club chairman next door, this of course enabling Gilbert to play a range of characters wider than lead men elsewhere with more glamour to shed whenever conventional parts called.




The Big Parade was a smash that passed into legend; horse-backed police and bus drivers remembered well the 96 weeks it ran to capacity attendance on Broadway ... certainly Metro bookkeepers kept its record business among treasured souvenirs. The thing began more as a programmer, but was upticked to a super-special by Irving Thalberg once he saw potential for a hit after legit What Price Glory? example. Director King Vidor and star Gilbert got the fever too. By the time Big was done parading, all down to soldier extras knew it would do historic biz. War would perform well so long as scale was large. Each of studios that could afford it seemed to be aboard with epic-scale battle enactment. WWI was going on ten years' past and maybe wounds had healed sufficient to regard the scrap on entertainment terms. Agonies of war would herein be revealed, but only after first-half's serve of comedy enough to fill out any three of service knockabouts done by, for instance, Paramount, with their Wallace Beery-Raymond Hatton group.




In fact, it was laughter that propelled much of repeat march to Parade boxoffices. Audiences loved, and sent friends back to see, doughboy hijinks wherein newcomer Karl Dane made impression enough to spin off an entire series of comedies with diminutive George K. Arthur. Metro would even retread The Big Parade to extent of Buster Keaton and Doughboys, a hit feeding off good will from the bigger attraction. A simple scene of John Gilbert teaching French girl Renee Adoree to chew gum became one of those treasured moments recalled into old age by filmgoers. The Big Parade's mood swing in its second half was what lent stature. We'd gotten to know these boisterous boys and so felt impact greater for their being hurled into combat. Random death is captured in long shot marching where we see casualties drop at a distance. It's all so casual and still has capacity to shock. Profanity comes thick and unexpected: God damn this and that of trench warfare once we're past point of no return. Gilbert's shell-hole scene with a wounded German goes minutes without a cut; it's like crouching down among them. Maybe it's as well we had laughs coming in, as these battles can still put one through a wringer.




This then, was the big picture that qualified King Vidor for biggest pictures over a thirty year period to come. He'd been directing a long while before Parade, but from here he'd join a short list of men who could be trusted to paint large murals. Northwest Passage, Duel In The Sun, War and Peace, and finally, Solomon and Sheba, would look back upon The Big Parade and distinction Vidor brought to bear, but was he as committed to these? Vidor epics that followed The Big Parade were purest Hollywood, but then, so was The Big Parade, beyond what reality KV could wring from supervisory clutches. Thalberg fortunately trusted Vidor enough to allow scorched earth in battle scenes and Gilbert's character leaving a leg behind in France, these honesties what a huge public would respond to and reward in terms of attendance. The Big Parade may have got a greatest word-of-mouth among any of silent specials, its repute enough to warrant a reissue with sound in late 1931. Now it comes our way through Blu-Ray offices of WB, and from a recovered negative closest of any to what crowds saw in first-run.




Friday, January 19, 2018

Western Specialty For a 50's Leading Man


Guy Madison Is The Hard Man (1957)

Guy Madison had hit big as Wild Bill Hickok on television. Could he topline a feature for theatres? That question was asked and answered using other cowboys off the tube: the Jims Garner and Arness, Fess Parker, others. They'd represent a second-tier of western leads, reliable support on bills where saddled-up Jim Stewart or John Wayne rode in front. Outdoor subjects done cheap enough were almost assured of profit; with a name of Madison's value, modest as it was, expense could be met. Columbia had an "old Arizona" town constructed years before in Tucson, familiar from heaven knows how many of their oaters, and that's where The Hard Man was lensed. Independent-producing "Romson" had been set up by Guy Madison and Helen Ainsworth, the latter an actress turned agent who partnered with Madison for three Romson pics Columbia distributed, these being The 27th Day (sci-fi) and Reprisal! in addition to The Hard Man. As humble westerns go, The Hard Man isn't bad. Variety liked it, and would boost Madison; indies generally found open arms among a trade that needed product. Columbia dealt for many such westerns and often as not bought negatives outright from suppliers following completion of agreed-upon films. Such parting gesture helped ventures like Romson to get out from under finance debt, hopefully take a profit, and move on to a next deal. In Ronsom's case, that would be with Steve Broidy at Allied Artists, where Guy Madison would star in the following year's Bullwhip.




Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Columbia Writes The Book Of Noir


Dead Reckoning (1947) Another Bogart Flash Back

Why Say It's Explosive? Isn't Dynamite Always Explosive?

A flashbacking crime thriller that Humphrey Bogart literally phones in. I can't recall more of his time and dialogue spent holding a receiver. He's calling after fate of a war buddy who jumps their train on route to receive a Congressional Medal Of Honor. Most of setting is a Louisiana town, as in deep south, which accent Bogie mocks as he speaks to a telephone operator. I'm told an actor's true test is in how real they make a phone scene play; a few got (Academy) rewarded for excelling at it: Louise Rainier, Edmond O'Brien. You wonder why Bogart does his imitative drawl because no one else in Dead Reckoning speaks remotely southern. I was surprised a third of the way in to realize it took place way down there.






Dead Reckoning was a loan-out done just before Bogart re-upped with Warners. It's actually better than some of what he'd been in lately for the home lot. Initiates to noir could watch this and imagine it's a glossary of genre tics: the flashback structure, narration throughout (HB's), the femme fatale ... every trope and then some to make Dead Reckoning seem a parody of a not-yet declared style. Bogart speaks in sports metaphors, being "thrown for a loss," "pitching high and wide," etc. I sometimes blunder into same at Greenbriar, not because I like or know the sport, but merely from watching too many movies like Dead Reckoning. Bogart's character is also just out of the service and not quite weaned off combat. I felt like a fight, he says, well before provocation gets underway. Helpmates against villainy offer surplus grenades that Bogie knows should go to Army Ordinance, but he'll use them all the same to subdue civilian opposition.








Bogart wanted Lauren Bacall for the bad girl part, but Warner said no (they would loan William Prince as the doomed buddy), so Columbia borrowed Lizabeth Scott from Hal Wallis. Scott said Bogart was polite and cooperative, but that she overheard him say "Isn't this a stupid way to make a living?" to no one in particular. Was his a general statement on acting, or Bogart merely commenting on this silly movie? Bogie's real love interest is the doomed buddy. He'll let Liz take the fall rather than see a pal go un-avenged. Besides, women aren't to be trusted. HB's a lot like Popeye in one of those cartoons where the sailor and Bluto have sworn off dames. There's even a part where Bogie goes down a laundry list about "The Trouble With Women." Speaking of that, how many times have we seen dead bodies disposed of by putting them in laundry hampers or down chutes? You'd think cops would eventually start looking in these places first.






Bogart's final blow-off for Scott is a brazen steal from what he handed Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon. It had only been five years --- had viewership forgotten? Again a desperate woman shoots a man who's behind the wheel of a speeding car, the quickest way to an end title noir knows. Jane Greer would do as much for Mitchum in Out Of The Past a following year, and Barbara Stanwyck used a cigarette lighter to put across similar point for Richard Rober in a few season's later The File On Thelma Jordan. These are tropes beloved of noir and why I watch certain of them over and again. Did Bogart read the scripted speech to Liz and hold his nose? Maybe part of that "stupid living" aside was awareness he was repeat-dialing a gag done before, and better. Bogie was forty-seven and aging out of thrillers fast, that obvious on a man looking ten years past calendar age. Was he wearing a hairpiece this early? I had thought it was donned first around Dark Passage, but his (or someone's) hair in Dead Reckoning looks too luxuriant to be true.






This above still I've had since college shows Bogart and Lizabeth Scott entering the "Dixie Restaurant" where they're greeted by Grady Sutton. He's an ideal host for menus and honey-drippin' hospitality, but was cut from the final print (I can practically hear his dialogue, and regret its absence). This wider view of the Dixie is also absent from Dead Reckoning. What we get is Bogart/Scott close at their table and no other diners or staff visible, other than a waiter Bogie tells to scram. I see a thing like this and wonder how many dollars went to waste staging all that, let alone paying Grady Sutton. I'll bet the credit list of movies he worked on, but wouldn't be seen in, was long as ones we know him from. A fully-dressed set, spoken parts, tables filled with extras --- what was final expense? Dead Reckoning was an important Columbia picture, but it was still a Columbia picture, and Harry Cohn surely blanched at dollars spent so cavalierly. For what info is worth, Dead Reckoning earned a hotsy $2.3 million in domestic rentals, a biggest hit for Columbia that year behind The Jolson Story, Gilda, and Bandits Of Sherwood Forest.




Bogart's later Santana group for Columbia could have used some of production lavished on Dead Reckoning, result of latter being in-house Columbia as opposed to the Santanas where half or more of budget was borrowed by Bogart's indie concern to make them happen. With star salary factored in, plus Columbia's distribution fee off the top, the Santanas had to think thin or lose money. Dead Reckoning, coming before these, is a handsome show and welcome break from sameness at Burbank. Columbia TV sales would be enhanced by this one and over half-dozen other titles they could salt syndicated packages with once the Bogart cult kicked in. I've been soft for Dead Reckoning since age fourteen. That was the year Bogart made landfall as a for-life favorite, and even though we had few of his WB classics to warm NC late nights, there was at least those of Columbia extraction, plus post-wars done on free lance basis. I've written before on glories of Tokyo Joe, In A Lonely Place, and The Caine Mutiny. Dead Reckoning streams in HD at Apple I-Tunes, a ravishing sight after years of translucent blacks and milky whites.




Monday, January 15, 2018

A Short and Sweet Surprise


Two-Fisted Carnival Boat (1932) Is Good Early RKO

A talker that I suspect was like many silents, being he-man stuff of wood-chopping, runaway trains, and dynamite to the dam. Latter is jammed by logs and Bill Boyd must blow 'em sky high to salvage north wood he commands. Carnival Boat only part-time serves its title, more of length spent among tall trees and challenge to fell them. This was a TCM find, way better than bulk of RKO-Pathe before shed of half that label and its absurdly crowing rooster atop a logo globe. Pathe survived as busy lot for rent to Selznick and others who had no studio of their own, then a site for much television. Wm. K. Everson wrote that Carnival Boat used stock footage from voiceless 20's to flesh out action, a lot of which is whole-hog excitement like serial chapters glued together to fill an hour. William Boyd is familiar "Bill" in credits, presumed pal to boys who liked him since actioning he did for DeMille and pre-talkie others. Boyd shows humor, virility, easy charm, that would later make him mentor to callow cowboys and youth watching, as definitive a stand-in for dad or big brother as any kid could want. It took westerns and continuing Hopalong Cassidy to confer immortality on Boyd. Economical as it was (negative cost:$217K), Carnival Boat still lost money during Depression-doped 1932 when dimes was hardest won. It's well worth TCM sit or place aboard the DVR.




Friday, January 12, 2018

William Castle's Flying Leap At The Boxoffice

Zotz! Is Kiddie Lure For Summer '62

Never knew William Castle was a coin enthusiast, but arrive he did to Evansville, Ill. opening of Zotz! with a collection valued at $42,000 (so Bill claimed). The Evansville Drive-In, with parking space for 700 cars, got first-run on Zotz!. We could wonder if it was really worth Bill's time to fly in for that, but then, aspirations were simpler in 1962, or perhaps he understood that where bally went, there was no such thing as minor engagements. Castle had learned how small rocks could form a pile, as Indiana wind might blow far the word of a drive-in lot filled to capacity that August weekend. His precise ETA, 9:58 on Saturday morning, came with invitation to all Evansville for meet/greet. Was there risk in announcing that he would disembark with that $42,000 coin collection? Whatever doubts Castle had about peers in the industry, he at least could trust his fans. It would be a busy weekend, Bill "staying over" to ride in the Sesquicentennial parade. Did not know what this meant until online refresher. Turns out it indicates a one hundred and fifty year landmark, as in Evansville's 150th year. At first, I thought it had something to do with a Sasquatch, but would William Castle be in town to recognize someone else's Bigfoot movie?




Good News, Evansville. Bill's Staying Over!
The Evansville Drive-In gave away "lucky Zotz! coins" that night, presumably not from Bill's private collection. Turns out the Zotz! giveaway was hard plastic, but "bronze-looking," with a hole at center top so you could use it for a bracelet or pendent. To own one was to qualify as a "Zotznick," for which I assume there was onscreen explanation. The coin figures into the movie because Tom Poston finds one with magical power that enables him to, among other things, fly. Assuming Castle stayed overnight, we could figure him sharing space in the booth and personally handing out the souvenir as patrons drove in. Bill's success came of personal outreach to his public. I've read how he'd breeze into towns, pick up a phone book, and start calling one-and-all to come see his show. Castle might have been President had he turned a same initiative toward politics. The fact he could indulge a collecting hobby that ran up value of $40K demonstrates just how well House On Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, and Homicidal had done. Distributing Columbia would not have stayed in bed so long with the producer were he not in steady profit. To the Evansville's Drive-In bill, note Mothra playing in support, also a first-run. That's two fairly high-profile genre releases from Columbia seeing initial play outdoors. Had Castle hoped for hardtop hospitality for his newest? Zotz! is available on DVD.

More Castle Conquests at Greenbriar Archive: Macabre, Hollywood Story, and The Night Walker.




Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Prize Sucker Powell Is How I Least Like Him


Pitfall (1948) Is Deep Fall Into Middle-Class Trap

Breadwinning Dick Powell expresses rut fatigue and that paints a target on his back for balance of this noir where fun is second to despair we know won't be relieved. Ordinary Joes on status quo chalkwalks always got it in the neck after WWII when men-folk were expected to hunker down and keep lawns mowed. We're supposed to figure Dick has disaster coming for step out of line with tempting Lizabeth Scott. I always knew men couldn't get laid for free in Code pix, but Pitfall doles out punishment to make us all stay zipped. Powell as fall guy was never a favored stance; he's too good with toss-offs and one-upping to make us like the dumbbell's plummet he takes here. Pitfall gets cultist boost precisely because it skewers postwar conformance, but that's less recipe for fun than resign to middle-class life being hell on bleak earth, then or now. Do moderns who admire Pitfall also enjoy it?




Pitfall was done independently, money being tight, and that shows. Filming was virtual tour of L.A.; we'd rather stay out of doors than suffocate on cramped sets. A best performance is Raymond Burr's, his a queasy line in heavies that made memorable a lot of thrillers that wouldn't have been so otherwise. Andre De Toth directed and co-wrote; he said later that Dick Powell snookered him into megging for free, but De Toth didn't care. He seems to have made the picture his way; maybe there was little enough at stake for no one to care. Powell produced, his radar pointed to whatever could maximize return, acting having become mere means toward that end. United Artists would release; they'd had a slew of similars to sell around a same time. How then, to tell apart Cover-Up, Jigsaw, Impact, and Pitfall, all bearing UA logo? Pie could be split but so many ways: Pitfall brought back $1.3 million, which suggests to me it got profit. Anyway, Powell kept making his home-brew, one of which, Cry Danger!, would improve on Pitfall.




Monday, January 08, 2018

Their Final Monster Meet ...


Abbott and Costello Say Farewell To Universal



Is it silly to apply the word grandeur to an Abbott and Costello feature? Not when they meet the Mummy and it's Widescreen 1.85 plus High-Definition. This was the team's last for Universal, the employer they "saved from bankruptcy," so say history and anecdotage. Seems sheriffs were held at bay by A&C, or Mae West, Deanna Durbin, others, while a single hit like King Kong could maintain lights otherwise dimmed, whether at U, RKO, Paramount, pick your sinking ship. Abbott and Costello didn't rescue Universal, except maybe from lower end venues and terms set by showmen inclined to take advantage of the company's lack of stars. A&C, along with Durbin, helped get Universal into first-run theatres, and on lucrative percentage basis. The fad for this team knew no precedent in talking pictures so far, for popular as the Marx Bros. had been in a previous decade, they wouldn't last into a next as consistent cash makers. Abbott and Costello kept Universal fat from before the war all the way to the mid-fifties, and I can't think of another team offhand that achieved that.






Did children respond to A&C in ways they had not with the Marx Bros.? You could argue that Abbott and Costello peaked in the 50's, less for their movies than tried-true and many routines on network Colgate hours. I've seen several Colgates. They are sloppy and off-cuff in likeable ways. Lou sweats under lights and gives up to breaking up both himself and trying-to-keep order Bud. It's like Costello knew the viewers would take whatever he chose to give, be it a little, a lot, or virtually nothing at all. These old kinescopes remind me of blooper reels from the features that turned up some years back, minus profanity Costello peppered those with. The late Universal features are models of decorum beside mad houses that are the Colgate shows. Did Abbott and Costello observe loose-as-a-goose Martin and Lewis and decide to emulate them? Certainly M&L was a duo that came closest to galactic popularity A&C knew, though they wouldn't last half so long, at least as a team. Question: Was Martin and Lewis the last team to go huge, in features anyway? (otherwise we might have to address Rowan and Martin)




Top Of The Bill In Chicago ...


... Playing Support in Sacramento
Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy would be final tango between the team and monsters. They, and Universal, had simply run out. I'm a little sorry there was no fourth Creature feature where the Gill-Man met A&C, latter perhaps as inept deck stewards on a yacht bound for the Amazon, or carnival barkers for a now-outfitted-with-lungs Creature. As it is, there was rendezvous in a Colgate skit which was rather like throwing away opportunity for a feature we could all have liked, and enabling a clean sweep for Abbott and Costello vis a vis all of Universal monsters. Meet The Mummy was also last stand for A&C doing comedy in time-honored way. There would be one more feature, Dance With Me, Henry, which was depart from formula but in ill-advised direction. Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy, whatever the complaints (picayune if you like the team), can be celebrated even as curtain was slowly lowering for both A&C and Universal's cabal of creepers (a last for the Creature would come the following year, and then ... castle lights out).


Looks Like U-I Cheesecake Art of Mara Corday Was Consulted For This Belgian Poster



Having It At Home: Castle's Super 8 "Complete" Edition
Television had made A&C comfy as carpet slippers, their routines spun like oldest burlesque wheels. For Mummy backdrop, "specialties" to widen net for the feature, there was performance by dance troupes that plied trade in 50's clubs, or variety TV, then went ways of memory and vanished cathode (I could wonder if any Mazzone-Abbott Dancers survive, or members of Chandra Kaly's group). Peggy King sang, was "perky" for George Gobel vid viewers, and got boosted in the A&C/Mummy trailer for that association. It took marketing muscle to keep Abbott and Costello relevant. Other than King and the dancers in/out, the boys are happily the whole show. C.B DeMille had gone to Egypt to fortify his Ten Commandments, but Universal did all its locationing on site. There's not even stock footage to set a mood, phoniness having been part of fun since Bud/Lou did Foreign Legion service or went Alaska ways. Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy was strictly trix for kids, and must have lit up many a matinee crowd. As for virtually all movies by the late 50/60's, it was television where A&C/Mummy got well and truly seen, a standby familiar as test patterns. Those were square-box decades, so imagine delight when a recent Blu-Ray set put back a wide screen to Bud/Lou/Mummy cavort and made us realize what heft this picture had when new.




Somehow Lou swallows a necklace, pendent and all. Actually, we see it happen, for the sought-after relic is hidden in a hamburger, which Bud and Lou switch back and forth. When Lou bites into the sandwich, there is loud crunching. I wonder if much of that wasn't drowned out by laughter in first-run theatres. Knowing Abbott and Costello just from television is not knowing them at all, and TV was the only place I ever saw them, so you could argue that through all paragraphs of this post, plus everything Greenbriar has past-written on the team, I don't know what in heck I'm talking about. There's a Variety review from 1941 that said laughter from Buck Privates' extended drill routine was "continuous" for five minutes, "dialog drowned in the audience uproar." The necklace gag goes at least that long --- was uproar as continuous in 1955? Someone who was there could enlighten the rest who can only imagine, or speculate in probable error. To me, the burger bit looked familiar, as in maybe I saw it once on a Colgate kine at You Tube. A&C were still their best in verbal rat-tat. I'd have liked more of that and less of slapstick in their 50's features. Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy has a pick and shovel exchange that's a highlight even for both stood still and handing props back-forth as they machine gun dialogue. How could anyone argue this team wasn't great in the face of tempo like that?




I know Marie Windsor got chased around in final years by noir nuts and "bad girl" obsessives, but did anyone sit her down to find out what it was like to bedevil Abbott and Costello? She is good enough here to be a virtual third member of the team, and surely got satisfaction in doing comedy for once instead of making Elisha Cook's life miserable. Monster mags taught me that Eddie Parker essayed the Mummy here, factoid I clung to rather than sums or history data they tried to teach at school. The Mummy was something Parker merely stepped into and zipped up ... no bandages to wrap ... and pretty much what Hammer winnowed down to as sequels came later from them. Again, rife phoniness was part of the joke. Many are ways that Universal has exploited asset that was/is The Mummy. Mere four years after A&C met him, there was full-blown revive for the character when U sub-contracted Hammer to do a color remake, then decades later came serio-comic re-vamp, plus a sequel. Another Mummy was out last year with Tom Cruise and a sort of zombie-fied Egyptian princess. Behind-scenes footage had fifty-four year old Cruise hurling himself off embankments rather than letting stunt men take the spill. Will this be a final variation on the Mummy to unwrap? 
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