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Monday, August 21, 2017

Paramount's Turn At The Gang Cycle

Rouben Mamoulian Directs Sylvia Sidney and Gary Cooper

City Streets (1931) Back From Hibernation

A sort of arty gangster film from Paramount and cheeky director Rouben Mamoulian, who'd try anything anyone said couldn't be done. He's more conventional here than with previous Applause, or later ones for that matter, so City Streets, which ventures little onto streets in fact, must go begging in comparison to high-powered Warner pics it competed with. Streets is really more like "crook" melodramas done from dawn of talkies before Robinson and Cagney began juicing them up, when Paid or Chaney's Unholy Three remake spoke for screen criminality. City Streets might have struck a more forceful chord had it come out a year before. Gang stuff was playing much rougher by 1931, the beer racket a mere launch to greater violence rather than City Streets' end in itself. Sylvia Sidney is goal-bound for stashing a mobster's gun, boyfriend Gary Cooper following her into the racket to effect a release. Sidney got the part here that Clara Bow had hoped for, but important properties were past the No-Longer-It Girl, and SS was besides a GF to Para production chief B.P. Schulberg, thus her push past Bow. Cooper is a languid lead until last reel's showdown. City Streets does, in fact, play at times like one of Jo Sternberg's gang pics that had been Para-popular since Underworld. Was Mamoulian guided toward inspect of these before starting City Streets? TCM licensed multiple runs of this otherwise scarce one and got a beautiful transfer.




Thursday, August 17, 2017

When Hitchcock Let Me Down


Trying To Read Vertigo in 1971

 First impressions run deepest, of people and movies. Mine for Vertigo was formed on May 16, 1971, to which disadvantages were the following: it was an ABC broadcast, which meant snowbound Channel 8 out of High Point, never a good signal, and on a Sunday night, with (high) school the next day, an obstacle to relaxation. Still, it was Hitchcock, a last of his key (color) thrillers I'd not seen. Oft-overlooked is fact that way more folks saw features on television than in theatres. A single broadcast of Vertigo drew millions beyond number that had bought tickets in 1958, or for a 1963 reissue with To Catch A Thief. We think of Vertigo as being "lost" for most of the 70's and into the 80's, but prior to that, and since 1965, it had been overexposed by the networks (five runs spread among NBC, ABC, and CBS --- I can't think of another that played all three nets). As proposed earlier at GPS, Vertigo took a much needed decade's rest before the Hitchcock estate (and owning partner James Stewart) leased the title and others of AH to Universal for 1983 theatre dates and eventual home video release.


Again to that Sunday in 1971, and expectation brought to Vertigo by this seventeen-year-old seeing it a first time. Most of Hitchcock had been clicko for me to that point. I regarded him a director incapable of making bad pictures. And Vertigo was a Paramount, my favorite Hitchcock address, with familiar stars and VistaVision fanfare the happy opener of viewing nights before. ABC broadcast was in color, not necessarily a given in those days of black-and-white prints a time-to-time hazard, at least in syndication, and ABC per policy ran a 35mm print, an always-advantage where a movie was shown on networks, as opposed to local stations confined to 16mm (a collector friend years later got possession of ABC's print, which was IB Technicolor and in mint condition, but cropped from proper VistaVision ratio to full-frame for TV use).


Further bane to freevee was advertising, a canker unknown to TCM viewership, but a bloat on Vertigo, which was long (128 minutes) to begin with. Sponsor share of broadcast made for slow march from 9:00 to 11:30 that night, but when had any network shown movies without interruption? (at best they'd be limited, as with ABC premiere of The Robe on 3-25-67). Vertigo had begun its 9:00 broadcast with by far the most dynamic opening scene of any Hitchcock movie I'd seen --- the chase on rooftops, still my nominee for the Master's greatest grabber (did AH and Howard Hawks confer? ... because Rio Bravo a following year had the same kind of lock-us-in-seats beginning). I remember waiting through the Bonanza hour (rival NBC's counter-programming) for Vertigo to regain its first momentum. Was this a ghost story? That seemed more the province of a Roger Corman than Hitchcock. The first half, in fact, seemed like variation on Tomb Of Ligeia, only with longer wait for malevolent spirit of "Carlotta Valdes" to possess Kim Novak and bedevil Jim Stewart. That would have been OK if this were AIP with Vincent Price, but was spook theme worthy of Hitchcock and star ensemble? The answer was a long time coming --- 77 minutes, in fact, before Vertigo has a first spasm of action with "Madeleine's" fall from the bell tower --- and even longer that night on ABC, where it was 10:30 and drooping eyelids through which I saw the belated jolt.


All of old films were put to disadvantage by television. That's only been alleviated in the last twenty-five or so years with early AMC and arrival of TCM. Vertigo played under a cloud since last IB Tech 35mm to theatres (the 1963 reissue), through network depredations (far fewer had color TV's in the 60's), then withdrawal from 1973 till Universal had it back on screens, but with horrid prints. By then, original elements were blown, and it took hero effort to fix Vertigo even half-right. The show could use a revisit yet, digital leaps paving way for improvements that couldn't be imagined even a short decade ago. Universal should do a spruce-up on Vertigo like Spartacus got, latter hugely improved by a latest Blu-Ray. In meantime, I'll keep watching what's here, the debate ongoing as to whether Vertigo is indeed greatest of Hitchcocks (or movies overall). Here's query I'll leave the topic on --- has anyone watched Vertigo in a crowded house? (I've not) How was the response? Being no humor in it like Rear Window or North By Northwest, did all sit stony silent --- was there, heaven forbid, unintentional laughs, or worse, walkouts? I'm thinking a general audience here, not film geeks predisposed to like it.




Monday, August 14, 2017

Where Farce Lays A Thud


Was Monkey Business a Best 50's Comedy Could Do?

Gosh awful Howard Hawks comedy, or is it just me? Best part of having finally sat through this is knowledge I won't have to again. Hawks rule still stands: He's funny when it's relief from action, much less so where laffs are sole objective. Look at humor of The Big Sleep, El Dorado (which I still enjoy more than Rio Bravo), To Have and Have Not, Only Angels Have Wings ... there's more wit to even Land Of The Pharaohs than Monkey Business. Can someone sell me on notion that this "comes to life with an audience," because I could only believe that if I saw, and heard, it. FXM ran Monkey Business HD, luring me like moth to the flame. All these years and constant opportunity, but only portions and excerpts till now. Fact to face: Some movies, well-known and even must-sees, are avoided for intangible reason, a lifetime of "not just yet" that keeps us away. I've been like that about Monkey Business, partly because the premise seemed inane, even embarrassing (Cary Grant regressing to child behavior). Did it prove to be that? I agonized for Grant (he does this, then turns down Sabrina?), was irritated anew by Ginger Rogers (a real trial by the 50's). The only one to come out unscathed was Marilyn Monroe. Were she not in it, there'd be total disaster.


Hawks in interviews and biographer Todd McCarthy tells of denuding by censors, wrong casting (HH wanted a lead lady younger than 41 yr. old Rogers), and a situation not so funny as it seemed on paper. Seems Hawks knew halfway in that he had a cluck, yet had to push on. How enervating this must be for any talent, especially one like his. At least the pay was good, Zanuck happy to have the director on whatever terms. Idea of youth potion mixed by a monkey would have worked fine for Disney ten years later, and his audience of ten-year-olds, but I wonder if grown-ups in 1952 cringed more than laughed at this. On the other hand, you could say Howard Hawks was ten years ahead of his time. Imagine Cary Grant as Merlin Jones in 1964 instead of Tommy Kirk! I'd have preferred that to Father Goose. To be fair, little of 50's comedy works today, at least for me. Can anyone name six of them that are still funny, if they ever were? Off top of my head, I'll nominate Pillow Talk, it having clicked at a college show I did in the early 00's. Teacher's Pet is also a favorite, but what else? Cary Grant as star of a series of sparkling comedies that decade is largely myth (Room For One More? Kiss Them For Me?). Would that he had done more that endured. For the record, I'd posit North By Northwest as the funniest of all Cary Grant films, and it's not per se comedy.




Thursday, August 10, 2017

Lost and Gone Stage Tradition


The Girl In The Show (1929) Celebrates "Tom" Troupes

So what's a "Tommer"? I found out after watching this early Metro talker and perusing 19th-early 20th century record. Seems there were dozens of troupes, most itinerant, performing Uncle Tom's Cabin for rural America. We can't know impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel for being a hundred and fifty years late to the party. It was huge, as in, many say, all-time best seller next to the Bible. Hard for a splintered culture to grasp such mass embrace. Anyone who could read, read it. Lincoln credited Uncle Tom's Cabin with starting the Civil War. For all the book's sentiment and homespun prose, it lit abolition's fuse and pushed slavery to forefront of North-South debate. Stowe's story had bumps that cried to be dramatized. To stage-adapt her novel was commonest sense, occurring to multiple impresarios around a same time, none with consent of author Stowe as there was no copyright protection for her work. Troupes could number few as seven players and still put on a Tom show, membership swapping parts where needed, sometimes doing two roles, cork-on or cork-off.






Many actors made lifetime work of Tom shows, never performing in anything else. It wasn't necessary to travel with props, for most of what Tom companies needed was on hand in small towns they played. Audiences expected the chase with bloodhounds, but that breed being sluggish at best of times made Great Danes a better pick to pursue Eliza over the ice. At least one stage entrance on a mule or pony was expected, so animals had to be coaxed not only into local Music Halls or opera houses, but often up multiple flights of stairs. Ambitious troupes arriving would put on a parade to engage locals, this essential to launch a week, or less, stay. Tom shows traveled for a remarkable seventy-eight years, last performance allegedly in summer 1931. Over that time, there would arrive movies to re-tell Uncle Tom's Cabin, from Edison to a lavish Universal production in 1927, latter available on DVD. The play, and those who staged it, were spoofed in variation from The Duncan Sisters to Our Gang. The only full-out telling of Tommer life I've seen, however, is MGM's The Girl In The Show, released in 1929, and a precious souvenir of life among the barnstormers. There's not a DVD so far, and TCM shows it seldom, but this one is a keeper for anyone fascinated by a very long gone theatrical tradition.




Initial title, announced by Metro in their 1929-30 product annual, was Eva The Fifth, a reference to Bessie Love being fifth member of her family to play that character in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Girl In The Show was part of a first season for Metro all-talkers, all fresh and novel on arrival, but stale within months as improved models came fast off studio floors. Initial tries at talk would soon be as obsolete as Tom shows headed for extinction. "Wired Guys" were on-beam showmen who spent for conversion to sound, but they were still in overall minority as small towns, who would have appreciated The Girl In The Show best, continued silent policy. MGM offered mute versions for these outliers, but some product, fallen into cracks of transition, didn't get as wide play as they would have in all-silent or later all-sound marketplace. My town, for instance, never ran The Girl In The Show either way.




The Girl In The Show ribs Tommers, but never ridicules them. Many of creative personnel, I suspect, had their start doing Tom shows, or at the least forming sentimental attachment to Uncle Tom's Cabin as depicted on hometown stages. No telling how many were lured into show business by a Tom troupe. We can assume the circus caused more youth to leave home, but Tom shows crooked a finger to would-be actors as well, as did vaudeville, medicine shows, etc., with all their siren sights and sounds. Arrival of talk to movies was opportunity to show how progress had swept off old modes of performing. Radio led a wrecking crew of newcomer formats, it making home and hearth a preferred site for entertainment. Clash of discarded old and insistent new is put forth by the ad at top for Chicago's Majestic Theatre, where The Girl In The Show is supported on stage by "World's Famous Radio Stars In Person" from the WLS Showboat, a weekly broadcast mélange of music and patter. WLS was a station established in 1924 by Sears and Roebuck for outreach to Midwestern farmers, who relied on weather and crop info as delivered by wireless. Here, then, is radio tuned to extreme primitive --- convenience an saving of admission an only inducement to listen --- but surprise, we can hear an episode of WLS Showboat today, a rare instance of so early a broadcast being still extant. Peruse of this, plus screening of The Girl In The Show, can take us back to something like what the Majestic's audience experienced in 1929.




Monday, August 07, 2017

When Hearst-hood Was In Power


Knighthood Flowers On Undercrank Blu-Ray

Cinemas as schoolroom has been tradition since movies started. It stood as bulwark against those who'd suppress filmgoing, being Hollywood's argument that yes, we can educate as well as entertain. How much of history would a public know but for screens explaining it? A lot of viewers shun period subjects. Exhibition was always wary of costumes, oft-putting stars in modern dress for ads where product was past set. Go back far as the Tudors and risk Merry Olde empty seats, warned management. Seekers after prestige still reached for the ring however, outlay greater where vanished cultures were recreated. Griffith was noted for doing it far back as the teens, first with Biograph shorts, then with feature epics heavy as text issued by schools. To rival DWG came others, none more ambitious than W.R. Hearst and Cosmopolitan arm that molded When Knighthood Was In Flower, a tycoon's pageant to celebrate Marion Davies and courtly ways modernly unseen outside baronial space like Hearst owned San Simeon, furnishing of which could decorate Knighthood and a dozen other historicals, given the old man's inclination to share his wealth.


Hearst was generous where it came to extol of Davies. Was ever so much lavished by a man to deify his mistress? Again, probably not in a 20th century, though there was plenty of example from distant past. Hadn't Caesar gone daffy over Cleopatra?, and what of the king who was doing swell, sang Elvis, till he started messing with that evil Jezebel? Again it's movies and music that teach us this, and so Knighthood came of noble lineage, being more instance of love determining history, which I'd acknowledge it did to at least part-degree in real life. Dates and kings and countries go down dry without romance to juice them, and there's why dream weaving is essential to make us sit still for sift through sands of time. When Knighthood Was In Flower has Davies as feisty sis to corpulent King Henry VIII, him wanting to marry her off to wizened peer of another realm, despite her having flipped for a jouster that unseats a rival and would-be Davies suitor in opening scenes. Story and conflict thus unfold in quick-time, being sword stuff, carriage getaways, humor here and there, a brisker ride that I expected from blinkered scribes who said for years that Knighthood was stiff ordeal (bet few if any of them even saw it).



Now we can all enjoy When Knighthood Was In Flower, thanks to Blu-Ray revive by Undercrank chief Ben Model and nitrate elements supplied by the Library Of Congress and L.A.'s Academy Library. Music is authentic to 1922 premiere playdates, up to and including a "Marion Davies March" composed by Victor Herbert (had this been heard anywhere since then?). Further rescue from first-runs is color enhance of a chase scene that is work of Jack Theakston, whose name on a project always assures quality. Greenbriar was also associated, which won't stop my bragging on Knighthood, as all creative work was Undercrank's. There is, of course, music as Ben Model-rendered, plus splendid liner notes by Lara Gabrielle Fowler. All this is every bit as impressive as any silent restoration a big distributor could turn out. If pre-talk treasure has a home-view future, it will be dedicated labels like Undercrank that supply it. Just in a past year, we have seen Colleen Moore in Little Orphant Annie (1918), as rescued by historian Eric Grayson, and there are Blu-Rays emerging regularly from Jack Hardy's Grapevine address. Silents are getting golden again, but need buyer support to stay that way.




Not a few saw When Knighthood Was In Flower as an epoch-maker. Near-all would sell it that way. Prominent to ads was cost being $1.5 million. This was money unimaginable in 1922. Who, earning a couple thousand a year, if they were lucky, could count that high? Indiana boasted source novelist Charles Major as one of the state's own. He wrote Knighthood under nom de plume of Edwin Caskoden. The book was hugely popular, and doubtless helped the film find its public. Evansville, Ind. thumped the Major association and played When Knighthood Was In Flower for a week. The Strand's campaign put other theatres in shade, a new style ad for each day of Knighthood stay. Opening on 2-18-23 got half a page, plus story synopsis among "Amusements" reportage the Evansville Journal did. Pen-and-ink art was a plus, and how lucky was Evansville to have this hit after fifteen weeks of New Yorkers storming doors to see it? For all of impression, here was Broadway on road tour, with only the Strand worthy to host such an "Engagement Extraordinary." Will Knighthood still impress? It is sure lavish from first shot to last, with image quality making the ninety-five year trip w/ nary blemish, and thanks to Undercrank's go-the-extra mile effort, fully complete at roadshow length. 




Thursday, August 03, 2017

Enrich Thyself ...


Your Assignment: Go See Romeo and Juliet

Could theatres enrich as well as entertain? Many strove toward that end. It was good for community relations, and tie-in with schools. Of distributors, MGM had deepest backlog derived off literature. Theirs were timeless as text still being issued to pupils, and read, if reluctantly, in classrooms. Many a crowded bus went to matinees of David Copperfield, Pride and Prejudice --- whatever brought books to life for youth jaded by TV, comics, and rock/roll. Widened appeal would lure grown-ups who knew Metro classics from first-run of years before, a group the Loew's Ohio in Cleveland reached to for a 1951 revival of the 1936 Romeo and Juliet. Showmen would risk an oldie where rental was low and reception assured, groups set in advance from schools, cultural groups, any mass to fill matinee seats and offset loss from arid evening runs. Many dates were daytime only, management wise to few that would show lest prodded by teacher or club chairman. Ads reflected art house dignity, as here, with emphasis on patron request for the bring-back, and evoking of Shakespeare that clicked previous (Olivier's Hamlet and Henry V). Student pricing at fifty cents went down smoother where you knew crowds were in the bag per prior arrangement. MGM kept enrichers in service long after others retired theirs to TV and even video. Last one I caught was 1948's The Secret Garden at a Gastonia, NC mall theatre in 1981, which lo-behold had the color reel for a finish, and not faded.




Oldie adaptations were seen out for most part by remakes, as would be case for Romeo and Juliet, the play having been pic-done by Brits in the 50's, but not catching fire till teen team of Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey revived, in a big way, fascination for the tragic romance. Impact on youth market was huge, as here was first time casting as age appropriate, Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard absurdly wizened for title parts in 1936. Using kids livened R&J well beyond mere recite from yellowed scroll, and who knows but what fresh viewership might put down Sgt. Pepper records to pick up Shakespeare text? And when had Seventeen magazine last focused on doublet with tights? Whiting/Hussey were dreamy whatever the garb, especially her rolling out of marital bed in a stunning-for-"G" rated frame cap to embed itself in consciousness of boys otherwise snoozing at '68 runs. We could wonder if a new generation of Shakespeare scholarship was spawn by success this Romeo and Juliet was. Of big-deal shows released in the late 60's, it seems least talked about, another instance perhaps of having to be there to have felt its cultural impact.
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