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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Racine's 1938 Battle For Halloween Receipts

Halloween Harvest 2016: Frankenstein/Dracula vs. The Lone Ranger

I admit fixation on the Frankenstein/Dracula reissue of 1938. It's a long chapter in Showmen, Sell It Hot!, as search goes on for ads touting these oldies but forevermore goodies, a happy revival instance where timing was right and the combination ideal. As said before, Frankenstein without Dracula was nothing special, just as Dracula minus Frankenstein rang few bells, but team them, and crash went doors (literally in one case, where onrush took an entrance off hinges). This was success that spawned a Frankenstein sequel (Son Of ...) and set off 2nd cycling of monsters at Universal. Racine, Wisconsin got play-off of the pair for Halloween 1938, and clearly from these ads, made a most of it. The Rialto (1,258 seats) led the chiller field that holiday, but rivals wouldn't lie down. The Uptown (1,292 seats) fought back with its own twin terrors, while the Mainstreet (1,170) had ammunition in form of a hottest new serial since Flash Gordon brandished a ray-gun. Who'd fly the winner flag at week's end?

There had been a draught for horror films from 1936 and Universal give-up after Dracula's Daughter and hostility toward the genre expressed by Brits and not a few US sectors. Vigorous-enforced censorship made them hardly worth effort to do. Like any cycle, novelty had to maintain, horror's being spent, or seemed so. Still, there was memory of how Dracula, then Frankenstein, had chilled. These two stood for scariest of the lot, everything else distant toward shade, except for King Kong, of course, which thrilled, but not in gothic sense. Kong got an encore in 1938 and smacked balls from profit plate; surely some figured Dracula and Frankenstein for same potential before a legendary L.A. booking that spun the duo into B.O. orbit. By October and Racine/Rialto date, there was national coverage of phenom that was these two. Seven years past initial release brought a new crop of kids to Drac and Frank embrace, strong message of "Do You Dare?" enlisting one/all to do what parents and older friends had not: endure the two in a single sit and find out what you were made of.

You could excuse others standing down for All Hallow week that seemed the Rialto's alone, but silver at the door was fought over fiercely, and there was still choice of where to spend leisure, even if Frankenstein and Dracula were the loudest noises in town. Wicket battles in those day were often won or lost with serials, and here was where the Mainstreet stood its ground. They'd open Republic's The Lone Ranger, a long Chapter One good as a feature so far as advertising saw it. "Heigh-Yo Kiddies" invited same to look at what they'd been hearing on radio, the masked hero not stuff of comparative antiquity like fiends at the Rialto. Being first and crucial chapter of twelve lent urgency to being there, for what boy didn't seek morphine drip of weekly cliffhang? We've forgotten ritual that was serials for at least a first half of that century, each bled into a next and never a weekend observance missed. A theatre with the best serial became a season's clubhouse, youth from all over come to see each other as much as what played onscreen.

A "Wild Bill Hickock Serial" was the Rialto's entrant to Saturday contest, no match for The Lone Ranger, and well in progress besides, but youngsters got six cartoons, a nickel bag of Cracker Jacks for free, with Frankenstein/Dracula to wash them down, so how to beat that? Hope Rialto and Mainstreet management were pals outside struggle for tickets sold, as this could have got ugly otherwise. Not to be forgot, though they probably were, was the Uptown, which went head-to-head against Rialto with "Original Monster" Boris Karloff as The Man Who Lived Twice and Bela Lugosi in The Death Kiss, two to inevitably disappoint beside brand names that were Frankenstein and Dracula. Nothing wrong with the Karloff, among his 30's best outside of Universal, but the Lugosi was mere mystery w/ nothing other than his name to suggest horror. It was easy for Frankenstein and Dracula to rise above fray of these and go on defining screen chills, which they did for  cumulative twenty-five years before Hammer seized advantage of color and greater gore to finally ease the senior class out of theatres. Dominance on television, however, would give the originals another two (at least) decades to define movie horror in purest terms.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Matzen's "Mission" Takes Flight

James Stewart's War Story Told From Pilot's Seat

I didn't know a lot about James Stewart's World War Two service. That's been fixed now with Mission, a newest from Robert D. Matzen, who before gave us Fireball (the Carole Lombard crash), Errol Flynn Slept Here (his fabled Mulholland manse), and Errol and Olivia (their film partnership and offscreen drama). Background is by way of saying that Matzen has delivered another sock volume, as in give-up-sleep-to-read account of Stewart's hurtle through air combat that odds should dictate he'd not survive. Again, the real life stuff tops whatever Hollywood might confect later. This may be reason Jim ducked war topics after mustering out with ribbons and officer status. Turns out he was at bulls-eye of rawest fighting our side engaged, Matzen recounting horrors to make complete sense of Stewart's darkened postwar persona. Safe to say there would have been no Vertigo or The Naked Spur, at least with JS, had not war forged a way more complex player than what aw-shucked earlier in boyish work.

Stewart family and background are deftly drawn. He'd come close as reality would permit to Norman Rockwell upbringing, stable family, religious observance, ancestry given to military service. Jim must have seemed an oasis of normalcy amongst Hollywood folk borne of harder scrabble. Is that what drew women so fiercely to him? Matzen explores that part, and let's cede right off that no one's dug so deep as here. I knew gals flipped for JS early on, but not to such astonishing degree as Matzen reveals, Stewart's a daily prewar struggle to stay single in face of femme aggression to make Axis effort look like lawn croquet (among names in pursuit: Ginger Rogers, Norma Shearer, Loretta Young, Olivia DeHavilland, --- all in earnest). Through the duck and (between) covers, Jim learned flying, inspired via Lindy hero-worship, and was in position, so he thought, to engage the fight skyward. Trouble was, he was underweight, Matzen capturing well the intensity Stewart lent his struggle to qualify. This war occupied him more than movies before or after would. As limned so vividly by the author, Jim would stand for a generation of men forever changed by years they served and fight they made to survive.

Stewart flew frightful bombing missions, over and over into jaws of death. Read all this and you'll know the miracle that he came home sane (I'd have been a Section Eight after mere training in these crates). Matzen himself flew across and saw sites from which Stewart's group took off. He traced survivors who knew and served with the actor. Mission is full of data never unearthed before. I hadn't thought it possible to so feel the danger of air battling from mere recite in words, but Matzen captures it here. You'll want to stay off too high a chair for this one. Parts of Mission shook me up pretty bad. Guess I never appreciated just what hell these pilots went through. Matzen makes all that clear as blue sky. If you've watched and enjoyed James Stewart in films (haven't we all?), then Mission will be a must. The book will enrich everything you see of him --- certainly did for me. It even added layers to recent HD-on-TCM screening of Dear Brigitte, let alone the many good ones Stewart graced. I'd not recommend any star bio higher. To learn more about Mission and to order the book, visit

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Gold-Digging In Paramount Penthouses

Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman Show How In Girls About Town (1931)

Serious question: Did gold-digging in movies inspire same conduct by viewers? They sure make it look easy, Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman coming away from dates with sables, furs, jewelry. The easiest way was often as not proposed as the smartest way, precode less laden with moral potholes that took fun out of gals-on-the-make as timidly practiced after mid-1934 (look how PCA enforcement seeped juice from Francis, Jean Harlow, Mae West, so many others). Kay and Lilyan live like Farouk, spend as if prosperity had met them way ahead of the corner everyone else waited vainly for. What was sense of being virtuous where roads of sin were gold-paved? Francis falls for Joel McCrea (in Young Apollo mode) and so gives up the penthouse to cook and scrub, a decision I'll bet most women thought sappy even if it was McCrea. Tashman, on the other hand, goes right back to predatory work in a fade tuned more to reality of hard times. Who of the sisterhood wouldn't see it her way, and maybe apply some of technique to scoop loose gravy themselves? Movie actresses often bowed out by marrying rich producers, too few Joel McCreas among that lot. Girls About Town is fun now, maybe a teaching moment then. I can see teen girl packing in 1931 and boarding a New York train, not a few finishing in gold-digger chips, just as Hollywood instructed.

Outside of Francis/McCrea, characters don't take the expected route. Pre-coding at Paramount was also less hard-bitten, so heart creeps in where not expected, Girls About Town the better for it. I've sometimes wondered why yacht parties were so popular then. Possible answer: Revelers stayed cooler on the ocean, especially where they could strip down and dive in, oft-occurrence at least on seagoing playgrounds we saw in precode. Carefree lives of the rich stayed popular through all of the Depression. McCrea stands for simple values, and so flatters patrons who'd identify with him. Cinching the deal is his being loaded too, so Francis can have cake and eat it. Golddiggers were generally allowed to get what they went after, no harsh moral compensation as later dictated, which is why early 30's pics play well today. Tarty dialogue is quality they virtually all have in common, Francis at one point saying she's sick of going out with "all these Babbitts," reference to the 1922 novel by Sinclair Lewis. Would dialogue today call up literature outside of Harry Potter?

Golddiggers could come across as funny ... or like prostitutes. Movies preferred the comedy. That's how escorts got to be old goats like a Guy Kibbee, or in this instance, Eugene Pallette, with whom the stoutest rent girl could not be expected to bed down with, no matter how harsh a Depression. When we tote up actual sex in golddigger precodes, there's actually not much. It's given that Kay Francis has slept with Joel McCrea, their hook-up sanctified by mutual love on first sight and our knowledge they'll marry by the fade. Golddiggers would continue operating on bland side of enforcement, but who can enjoy The Girl From Missouri, Belle Of The Nineties, any number of Joan Blondell/Glenda Farrell pairings, where we know sex was bled out of scripts long before a frame was shot, or excised on completion and close peruse by censors. It had to be sad affair to go to movies by the mid-30's and have still fresh memory of joy that went before. No wonder audiences booed the Production Code seal where it showed up in front of credits.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Another Lethal Dose Of Wald

The Story On Page One Pushes 1959 Envelopes

Jerry Wald's 1959 sizzler for 20th Fox release. He was a genius producer-writer-idea man who died too young (50) and early (1963) to be noted by emerging film study. Just as well, Wald would probably laugh it off anyhow. He was 100% get-it-done minus refinements, other than turnstiles and how to make them twirl. Go to best Warner releases from the late 30/40's and chances you'll find Jerry's name, either in writer or producing capacity. Wald belongs but short tier down from Selznick, Wallis, Goldwyn, but no one's dug deep on him yet (do papers survive, and in what archive?). Wald was full-out always, had so many brainstorms to threaten short-circuit. Maybe that's what killed him. He was the sort studios kept round when they wanted big profits, which made him welcome everywhere (at height addresses: WB, RKO, Columbia). The town could have used two dozen Jerry Walds. Dancers on his grave said Jerry was the model for Sammy Glick in Budd Schulberg's acidic What Makes Sammy Run?, but that could as easily be any number of Hollywood go-getters, or composite of plenty, which I suspect was case.

Groucho might have put Wald among those vaccinated with a phonograph needle, because he never stopped talking. One occasion of shooting his mouth off nearly started fistic brawl with AIP's Jim Nicholson, Wald crashing an exhib luncheon during a Theatre Owners Of America confab in October 1958. Jim and Sam had paid for the feed, did a major burn when Jerry hopped up and said AIP pics were "injurious to the industry." Arkoff replied that was funny coming from the guy who'd just made Peyton Place. Nicholson was ready to take the discussion outside. Toastmaster Sidney Markely "calmed down the trio" (Boxoffice), and dining resumed. Wald never saw the least hypocrisy in his remarks. For that matter, he'd have probably done Hot Rod Gang and High School Hellcats had notion been his rather than Jim/Sam's. TOA meets were like rugby fields in those days, booze flowing, hot words exchanged, jackets doffed at boiling points. As stated before, I'd have gladly been bellboy for Nicholson/Arkoff, or Jerry Wald, as they entered such frays. I went to a Florida exhib con some years back that was fun, but a pink tea (much too civilized) beside bacchanals these once were.

The Story On Page One is half-speed Wald, a junior varsity Anatomy Of A Murder, but engaging and up-front with sex theme that got gears grinding. Wald knew pushing boundaries was what sold through industry's fight to a finish with television --- give them what tubes did not dare. In this case, it is Rita Hayworth as adulteress in Gig Young arms, the two implicated when her husband falls during struggle for a gun. Anthony Franciosa as reluctant defense lawyer (again as with Jim Stewart in Anatomy --- no pay!) who doubles down on explicit Q&A re hotels, "intimacy," what not, that we'd only recently begun hearing in courtroom drama (one courtroom gladiator makes tactless reference to "fornication"). It all dates, sure, but everyone's game for the showdown, Hayworth a glamour-gone standout, as is Gig Young, sans humor and effective, Franciosa demonstrating high-octane method acting when this was still a new and exciting thing. There's no DVD or streaming that I've come across. FXM runs The Story On Page One, but it's an old transfer, letterboxed but not anamorphic, a hark-back to 80/90's way of broadcasting movies. It deserves an upgrade.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Old-Fashioned Westerns On Last Round-Up

Hathaway All-Outdoors For Nevada Smith (1966)

L.A. Saturation Run
Probably a biggest western Henry Hathaway directed during the 60's, outside of How The West Was Won (and not forgetting True Grit), this is strangely ignored in surveys of both his output and outdoor shows of the time. Location stuff looks stringent. Did actors realize what they were letting selves in for? Arthur Kennedy, then in 50's, had to wade through swamp water, then sink face-up below muck. Others, in fact all others, suffer as much. I don't know when I've seen so many name players put to such physical discomfort. Hathaway was a known martinet, would not abide sissies or fraidy cats, so imagine him cussing a cast reluctant to go head first in mud. This may have been the last Truly Hard Man directing movies. That he wouldn't stand misbehavior from any star stood Hathaway in unique stead. He would literally fight an actor rather than give in to him. I might have assumed Hathaway would clash with Steve McQueen, but Marshall Terrill's McQueen bio says they got along, but only after HH read the "riot act" to his star. Nevada Smith would come at breakout point for McQueen as a truly giant star. From here, he'd be offered every worthwhile part for a lead man, virtually all others a second or less choice.

Nevada Smith is long, episodic, studded with character faces in and out as McQueen seeks revenge on a trio that killed his parents. Parts not shot in swamps were done at Lone Pine, by far a lion's share of the film set outdoors. Hathaway was one veteran who'd speed up rather than slow down with age. I doubt there was any elder helmsman that so consistently chose tough way of shooting, for which Nevada Smith, whatever its narrative burps, profits nicely. Story was prequel to The Carpetbaggers, being back story of Alan Ladd's character from the 1964 hit, also produced by Joseph E. Levine for Paramount release. This time with less emphasis on sex, Nevada Smith came among last of establishment westerns done in the face of Italo-game changers, men like Hathaway and Hal Wallis (frequent partners) standing tall for cowboys as traditional-known by US filmmakers. It took Sam Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch to truly break  stateside mold.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Check Those Wheelchair Brakes

Wicked Widmark Served Double For Revival Booking

Kiss Of Death (1947) Shoves Sadism Down Stairs

Darryl Zanuck regretted the title he'd given this crime thriller after receipts that barely showed profit. He said Kiss Of Death sounded like a horror movie. First marquee or ad impression could indeed be a kiss of death if they misled patronage. Was KoD a turn-off? How many left this excellent docu-noir alone because they thought content was something else entirely? Again as with successful House On 92nd Street, Call Northside 777, and 13 Rue Madeleine, there was adherence to realism, both in setting and theme. Henry Hathaway took crew and principals to New York and shot at Sing Sing for prison portions. Getting authentic flavor mattered much to patronage lately done with the war, moviegoers having been made more worldly by conflict fought worldwide. The one-sheet promised something stark --- Victor Mature's anguished face against deep black background.

Vic Lightens Up Between Takes

A bigger noise was Richard Widmark in screen debut. His giggling killer upset complacency where screen heavies were concerned. I'm still surprised the Code allowed his pushing an old lady down stairs in a wheelchair. Certainly it was the scene everyone came away talking about. Widmark's character was so maniacal, in fact, as to give Fox headaches for follow-up. He could repeat Tommy Udo to point of saturation that would come quick. Time was needed to make a palatable leading man of him, that mission accomplished within a couple years and lead man casting along conventional lines. Still, people remembered him as Udo, Widmark and that wheelchair as close-associated as Jim Cagney with his grapefruit. RW would even recall his first meeting with John Wayne getting off to a bad start because Wayne identified him so strongly with the killer part. Kiss Of Death comes from Fox's Film Noir Collection in a first-rate DVD transfer.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

A Screenful Of Knuckleheads!

Stop! Look! and Laugh! A 1960! Must! See!

Some names that meant much fifty years ago could not be more forgotten now: Paul Winchell, Officer Joe Bolton, The Marquis Chimps, but not, of course, The Three Stooges, who remain, whatever the argument over merit, a best known comic team of all. Moe, Larry, and Joe De Rita sought a restraining order to block Columbia release of Stop! Look!, and Laugh! on basis it would queer their planned feature for 20th Fox, Snow White and The Three Stooges. The order was granted in July, 1960, then dissolved weeks later after further hearing, issue largely moot as Stop! Look!, and Laugh! opened on twenty Los Angeles screens during the interim. Variety referred to the team's "lolli-popularity" among tricycle trade and "thriftily spliced together ... old shorts," none of this a knock on Columbia, as trades encouraged family fare to take onus off adult-theme The Apartment, Elmer Gantry and such that made parents wonder if theatres were still safe haven for youngsters.

The "Original" Stooges are touted large, kids aware from TV views that Curly-featured shorts were funniest of the lot. Nice to see Charley Chase and other past vets receive fresh onscreen credit, Chase having directed several of the old excerpts. Someone clearly took care to minimize eye-pokes and slapping among the boys, rougher stuff left off as it had been in a fresh feature, Have Rocket --- Will Travel, with latter-day Stooges. Music is added to the truncated oldies, a distraction not welcome. Winchell and the TV gang were to some extent regional lures, a cameo from "Officer Joe Bolton" meaningless outside New York markets where he hosted WPIX Stooge runs (unless Joe was syndicated and I missed him). Winchell had at least some network exposure here/there, so his tiltings with Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff, even if filched off Edgar Bergen's act, came welcome to moppetry in attendance. Winchell assumes parental role vis a vis the dummies; he even burps Jerry at one point. The Marquis Chimps have one skit, a too long one based on Cinderella. Their act was strictly a snooze, but one of them merits Stop, Look's fade by taking a pie in the face. Would the ASPCA sit still for that today?
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