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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Civil War Battlefields With Sound

Griffith Takes Up Talk with Abraham Lincoln (1930)

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

Friday, November 21, 2014

Tracking Another Cartoon Obscurity

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Long Runs and Word-Of-Mouth = A 1950 Hit

The Third Man Makes Beautiful (Zither) Music --- Part Two

Canada Playdates Are Many and Fruitful
There was a very public dust-up between Selznick and producing partner Alex Korda prior to Third Man release. Seems Alex now had second thoughts about US share he relinquished in earlier talks, and so sued to get in on grosses earned stateside. He'd even use The Third Man prints and negative as leverage, denying Selznick these as opener dates loomed. This annoyed DOS the more as he knew Korda for a slick operator and saw himself as badly used by the Brit mogul. Between court decision on some issues and settlement of others, the matter got resolved with The Third Man at last set in stone for 2/1/50 preem at the Victoria Theatre on Broadway. That date had been juggled over a past several months, in part due to the Korda flap, but also because Selznick wanted to time The Third Man release with breakout of underlying zither music he and a merchandising team knew would catch fire among Yank listeners. The till-then obscure instrument had already lit up Euro markets, Variety reporting in 11/49 "a rush on music schools in Vienna by Austrians who wanted to learn how to play the zither." Austrian zither manufacturers were meanwhile swamped with orders from abroad, the fad having canvassed much of Europe before Americans had first glimpse of The Third Man.

Selznick wanted his thriller, and its thrilling sounds, to play several weeks at pre-release engagements before turning the zither loose on radio and disc listeners. Rollout of movie, then music, would be coordinated like D-Day of linked selling. First was Victoria's open on 2/1/50, then Feb.8 for Miami and Chicago, followed by Feb.21 at Los Angeles' Fine Arts Theatre. Through the month of February, audiences would hear those wild, and some said very sexy, zither themes in theatres only. By March 1 and first "public performances" (airwaves, records, night clubs), the zither would be all a rage and send both first-time and repeat business to The Third Man. So how did timing work? Like a charm, said trades. New York and Chicago did a "spurt," said Variety, with ticket sales steeple-jumping after month-long play, a seldom known event as pics usually tailed off after initial weeks. The zither was shaping up as engine that would drive The Third Man into spring months and wider release, 400 to 600 dates skedded for April 9 and after. "The Third Man Theme, the principal tune, will be hitting its peak of popularity in April," said Variety, "just at the time the film is going into general release." By then, there would be seventeen different recordings of the theme music in stores and over the air.

Later 50's Thrillers Trade on Third Man Rep
But recording companies were balking. They'd grown impatient over Selznick dithering on a release date for The Third Man. "Film Tunes Not Worth the Coin Or Grief," said "diskers" to Variety, constant delays and schedule-shifting "an abuse of their facilities." Besides chaotic calendars, "the recent ratio of film-born hits is low and doesn't near compensate for the trouble they cause in many cases." 20th Fox had lately done a reverse on plans and demanded record distribs to get out discs for Wabash Avenue post haste, another instance where aggrieved music merchants felt juice wasn't worth (tight) squeeze. The Third Man Theme was something else, however, a for-real knockout that would take off in even greater earnest when original zither man Anton Karas made US landfall and got cafe, television, and radio dates courtesy hard-driving MCA agents in charge of his time. Karas, who'd been earning $15 per week at an Austrian bistro before director Carol Reed discovered him, became as inseparable from The Third Man and its zither as Chubby Checker would later be with the Twist. He'd spend rest of a long life dining out, and entertaining diners, with music, and an instrument, he'd immortalize.

The Third Man Becomes Available to TV Viewers in 1957

20th Fox Announces a 1956 Reissue
There were further flaps arising out of The Third Man. Largely laughed off were Communist complaints that Vienna had been defamed by onscreen depiction as "a hell of crime and corruption." Calling The Third Man "a dramatically weak gangster film ... without ethics or morals," the Red press merely goosed already lengthy lines in Vienna, patrons eager to see what fuss was about. More serious, and damaging to receipts, was Orson Welles' outburst to a French interviewer wherein he told of a German nightclub in which "the orchestra played Nazi songs and the audience stood up to give the Nazi salute." Welles claimed that he "knocked out the tooth of a German who slapped a woman when she protested the music" (Variety). Thus began the expected firestorm, and boycott of films in which Welles appeared: Prince Of Foxes, Macbeth, and of course, The Third Man. There were demonstrations that "mushroomed" in theatres, as public pressure saw cancellation of Welles pix. One German exhibitor's association went on record as being "against Orson Welles," and 20th Fox's Deutsch rep had to release a statement assuring that his company had "no contract" with the actor/director. The Third Man had played off most of its German dates by then (11/15), but residual effect was felt: at a Dusseldorf night spot, patrons tossed liquor glasses and food at the bandleader when the Third Man Theme was played.

Orson Welles Got a Lucrative Airwave Gig From Harry Lime

Trade reviews for The Third Man gave praise rare to imports: "This is probably the most internationally accepted picture ever made in Britain," said Showman's Trade Review, while Film Bulletin singled out director Carol Reed for extravagant kudos, The Third Man called "another Reed masterpiece" after examples of The Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out. Here was where Reed would be recognized as a next Hitchcock out of England, The Third Man being the best suspense package from there since AH left. New York's Victoria engagement ran nearly six months, Chicago's Selwyn keeping The Third Man ten weeks. L.A.'s Fine Arts sold the film on hard ticket at two-a-day, $1.80 tops. Variety estimated David Selznick's US distribution take at one million. He would lease The Third Man to 20th Fox for a 1956 reissue, but a weak $82K in domestic rentals (foreign $13K) wouldn't cover new prints and advertising, result a $52K loss. Better returns came from sale to television the following year, The Third Man going out with other Selznick properties among NTA's "Champagne" group, an impressive lot that also included High Noon, a major post-48 "get" for TV. Later there'd be an NTA- developed vid series based on the Harry Lime character, with Michael Rennie as star. The Third Man is available from Criterion and other labels (Region Two) on Blu-Ray, the Criterion disc including a feature-length documentary on the film.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Thriller Hit With Zither Background

Selznick-Korda An Uneasy Producing Pair of The Third Man (1950) --- Part One

Modern Art Meets Movie Merchandising
David Selznick thought Robert Mitchum would make a better Harry Lime than Orson Welles. More I think about it, the righter he seems. Selznick was painted as philistine mogul by surviving-beyond-him Carol Reed and Grahame Greene, both making a clown of their producer associate for interviewer/audiences cued to laugh at their oft-repeated tales. Of course, without Selznick and his stars/money, there'd have been no Third Man. Selznick had become all the more nit-picking and obsessive by 1949, his finger having slipped off the pulse of public taste. For reasons easily understood, DOS felt movies ought to function in ways that worked before the war. It wasn't easy for him or anyone to realize that this industry and its viewership had changed much with coming of peace.

Again to the Mitchum point: I agree with Selznick that he'd have been better. Mitchum had danger, was capable of anything, even diluting penicillin for children, Harry Lime's worst of many crimes. Perfect casting his would have been for Bob having lately been tapped by L.A. vice at a reefer party. He'd fit right into a black market ... ours, Vienna's, anybody's. Orson Welles, on the other hand, never suggests a threat to me, nor can I accept his doing such horrid things in guise of Harry Lime. And we know he won't throw Holly Martens off the Ferris wheel. Were it Mitchum, we'd be surprised if he didn't. Further recasting: what about Gregory Peck in the Joe Cotten role? Selznick presumably still had his contract, unless The Paradine Case wrapped it up, and Peck v. Mitchum would have raised stakes considerably on that wheel. Not to take anything from The Third Man, however. It's still on my all-time favorites list.

There's more lore on The Third Man than for most from the Classic Era. Several book-length studies were written, and interviews abound with many who survived to the film's placement among settled greats. Enduring myth claims Orson Welles directed his scenes, de facto helming much of The Third Man, according to some. Well, it does look and play like a Welles project. He might have done something nearly as good if someone had let him, but by 1948, OW was a "detriment" to ticket-buying, according to Selznick when he demurred on Orson-casting. Sift through the record shows Welles did not write his dialogue for the Ferris wheel, but did contribute the gag about Switzerland and the cuckoo clock. He came up also with the indigestion routine and repeated mention of pills he can no longer get to relieve it. That's aspect of the scene I remember best, mordant humor woven through otherwise tense conversation. But did Welles suffer for not having directed The Third Man, a film very much in his style and a credit that would have made him solidly bankable again? We could wonder how often he'd be approached by fans who assumed OW was creative force behind a thriller so Wellsian as The Third Man. Could OW have laughed off such misplaced accolade as would John Ford when "congratulated" for Red River, a Howard Hawks job.

Selznick made a lucrative deal on The Third Man. For loan of Joseph Cotten and (Alida) Valli, along with some financing, he'd get Western Hemisphere rights and eventually the negative. Being up-to-minute on boxoffice trends and how other company's product was doing, DOS knew The Third Man would be a challenging sell. Being Brit-made put it dangerously close to an art film, or one people wouldn't want whatever its classification. Most of what came out of England danced on gallows here, if released at all, and arties had a ceiling he'd have to get beyond to realize profit on The Third Man. So yes, Selznick made changes, replacing Carol Reed's voice opener to something more conventional in Joseph Cotten's narration. And DOS took out a reel of footage to juice up pace. A dumb idea we'd say --- who'd choose to watch the US version of The Third Man today? --- but Selznick saw urgency to make his film accessible to statesiders who'd never seen anything quite like this before. He'd pioneer use of television trailers to sell The Third Man, one-minute spots made specifically for home viewing, according to Variety (the spots ran in all 58 TV markets available at the time).

The Third Man wouldn't be a first Occupation-set thriller. That distinction may go to Berlin Express. Earlier arrival in terms of comedy was A Foreign Affair from Billy Wilder/ Paramount. A closer cousin to The Third Man, and a merchandising example Selznick may have consulted, was MGM's The Search, also realist in approach and perceived by many at the time as an art pic. The Third Man was blessed with content that could sell, sex and sudden death a most potent. Misery of bombed-out Vienna populace was secondary to these, The Third Man very Hollywood in that respect despite Reed/Greene's quest for something different. There would be multiple ad styles tendered by the pressbook ("fully three times as many ad mats as are usually furnished for the best pictures," observed Motion Picture Herald), each keyed to specific audience desire, some designed like modern art. This was a very forward-thinking campaign, one that would be imitated by others to come. Selznick was known to oversee every detail of exploitation, so may we credit him with perceptive selling that helped make The Third Man a US hit?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Steve McQueen Drives Ahead Of His Time

Le Mans (1971) Finishes High Among Race Pics

I found this much better than its rep would suggest. Critics complained there was no story, many bored with so much race stuff. Well, you do need threshold interest in fast cars to enjoy Le Mans, speed being Steve McQueen's obsession and his entire reason to produce and star in the film. That it broke his Solar unit (which had made enormous hit Bullitt) and ended up not earning him a dime was only part of damage Le Mans did to McQueen. This was his show and he'd see it done his way, at end (or middle) of which money partners took reins away from Solar and raced shooting to a finish, cost a much more than planned ten million. John Sturges was hired to direct, being a friend and once-mentor to McQueen, but he'd bug the star to beef narrative, add dialogue, make Le Mans more conventional. To Steve's credit, he held story and dialogue, especially his own, to bare minimum. You'd think for a first twenty minutes that Le Mans was a silent movie beyond roar of engines.

As semi-doc, Le Mans works great. You're pretty there in terms of locale and intimacy of pits, their crews, and inside broilers that was racing machinery. Crashes are horrific, any of them sure to kill an occupant, but amazingly, nobody died during production, although one driver lost a leg (his "sacrifice" noted in closing credits). Le Mans was actually ahead of its time for austere guidance by McQueen. We don't need to hear him talk this time. His action carries the day, which was this actor's preference in any case. Steve was always for trimming lines; you could put total of his Le Mans dialogue in a one-to-two minute bag. Cast membership beyond is for most part pro drivers brought aboard to assure authenticity. They do that in spades, a big and further plus to Le Mans. The movie ended up in profit, but McQueen got a black eye among money men who'd not turn him so loose on a project again. Besides that, he was sick of Solar and drain it imposed on personal finances. From now on, the star would take his considerable money and run.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Flicker Alley Cinerama Is CineSational

These Cineramic Blu-Rays Are Smileboxes All!

How could biggest event movies of the 50's disappear so completely? For me, the best and biggest ongoing Blu-Rays are Cinerama times six (so far) from Flicker Alley. Each are show-stoppers in truest sense of home viewing, Dead Sea scrolls of film history resurrected from seeming oblivion of damaged and incomplete negatives. How David Strohmaier and team staged rescues is miraculous on par with three-panel triumph that changed movies for keeps from premiere of the first, This Is Cinerama!, in 1952. How I envy those who saw one or more of these in theatres. Like boarding a moon rocket. You can get nearly that sensation watching any of Flicker Alley Cineramas, including two just out, The Seven Wonders Of The World (1956) and Search For Paradise (1957). From sound and visual standpoint alone, they make tinker toys of everything Hollywood produced through the 50's, and since, for that matter. Nothing else instills such non-stop exhilaration. There are mere movies, and then there is Cinerama. To quote Errol Flynn as Captain Blood with regard my enthusiasm, "I hope I'm not obscure."

Here's instance where you should begin with dessert, then have the meal. Extras with Cinerama detail awesome effort behind fix of camera negatives left for dead in warehousing since practical usefulness ended for Cinerama in the 60's. Genius behind Blu-ray production Strohmaier illustrates frame-by-frame recovery of color and sound from three individual panels, plus separate Stereo tracks, that made up each Cinerama production. That's restoring what amounts to three movies for each individual result. What incredible strides have been made in digital clean-up and color correction ... you'd not figure gone-to-pink negs for anything but a scrap heap, and then comes process that puts V back in Vivid that got folks cheering at Cinerama first-runs. Here is best explanation I've come across of effort going to movie restoration, and what patience and dedication it requires. Cinerama groupies have for years been a nomadic tribe going from one isolated revival to another. Now they can have a near-whole of output right in the house. No, it isn't a same as synced-up panels in company of thousands at deluxe 50's environ, but sit close enough to a big enough HD screen, and you'll channel at least part of what first-nighters felt.

I think it's safe to say that Cinerama changed lives. 99% could go in, be amazed, then resume normal routine. Others, a transformed few, would dedicate selves to quest for lost horizon of Cinerama, this splinter group of Ronald Colmans crossing wilderness in search of three panels they'd known but briefly from childhood. What's left of an original Cinerama audience has to be at least sixty and up. Most dedicated ones would rather glimpse their beloved process again than Heaven itself. Maybe Cinerama was Heaven on earth and we let it get away. Hardest-core fans could make an argument for that. One of them was an Ohio collector who converted his ranch-style home into a Cinerama showplace, him doing projection solo, a job meant for multiple operators. For a while, John Harvey's was the only place in the United States where you could see Cinerama. That's changed now thanks to digital projection, though purists will tell you there's no substitute for synched-up machinery running three prints in tandem. I used to have hard enough time making 16, let alone 35mm, play properly. Imagine precision it took to run Cinerama.

Among Blu-Ray extras with The Seven Wonders Of The World is a 50's newsreel of Cinerama as a tent show moving across French countryside, with stops every thirty or so miles to thrill small towns and villages. Canvas was raised as with a circus, spikes hammered down just like Mr. DeMille shows in The Greatest Show On Earth, except this big-top housed massive equipment and manpower to put on, then tear down, daily runs of Cinerama. Clunky generators and ton-weight projectors are hauled against bucolic backdrop of livestock and curious kids on bikes. You'd not believe such a thing was possible if you weren't seeing it. Charm of Cinerama was its low-tech render of space-age wonders. What an audience got was glimpse into other-worldly future, not knowing that projection booths behind them were sealed galleys where men rowed with oars that had to be pulled in precise unison, lest the whole enterprise sink. Sometimes, of course, leaks were sprung, and for such interruption there were "breakdown reels" to distract viewers while harried crew effected a fix. Some of these are also included as Blu-Ray extras, each an attraction in itself.

Further, and sufficient reason by itself, to have these Blu-Rays is the music. Most of best Hollywood composers worked on them. I looked at Search For Paradise last night and it was like attending a Dimitri Tiomkin concert. Just imagine an exotic travelogue with Gunfight At The OK Corral overlay --- that's the sock you get here. The Seven Wonders Of The World has David Raksin, Jerome Morros, and Emil Newman at shared baton. Raksin being my all-time favorite composer made Wonder's track so much gravy. Someone wrote that Cinerama gave musicians leeway to express themselves like no studio assignment allowed --- watch these and know truth of that.  Cinerama shows seem to me to have influenced so much of what Hollywood would attempt in the later 50's and 60's. I say attempt because rivals could capture but hint of what three-panels offered. Sayonara in 1958 had Technirama and extensive shooting in Japan, but Seven Wonders Of The World had gotten there before, and captured sights more spectacularly. MGM's Bhowani Junction went to India, but economy toured beside what Cinerama had shown from a same address. UA might have come closest to travelogue as ongoing spectacle with its James Bond series in the 60's. Surely a book could be writ on impact Cinerama had on film and filmmakers to come.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Monogram Strikes a Bulls-Eye

Poverty Row Clicko with Beggars In Ermine (1934)

Note "Final Tribute" To Recently Passed
 Lilyan Tashman, and "Atwill" Misspelled
A cine-snob might argue this property as being too good to have come from Monogram. Was such a compelling yarn shopped among majors before capitulation to poverty row? Metro or Paramount would have added names, length, plus layers of pretension, but not come up with something so good as Monogram manages here within a trim 72 minutes, and who better than Lionel Atwill to play the lead? He's a steel industrialist who loses legs and a faithless wife, but climbs back thanks to assist from worldwide cabel of street people at his behest, reminding me at times of Lon Chaney from The Penalty, only Atwill's more benign. Cheapies from the 30's are often a chore sitting through, but not Beggars In Ermine. It was sold by Monogram as a special and actually got Broadway booked at the Mayfair, its six day stay an abbreviated one with only $4,900 in the till. Noted was fact that replacement Hitler's Reign Of Terror, a documentary that "may turn out to be a freak boxoffice winner"(Variety), earned $4,000 in a first day at the theatre. Beggars In Ermine can be streamed here and there, plus DVD's of varying quality from off-labels.
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