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Thursday, July 31, 2014

The 40's Epic Of The West

Red River (1948) Stays Evergreen On Blu-Ray

Shot two years ahead of release, held up for editing (troubled), lawsuits (Howard Hughes satisfying a spite), and other delays that might have portended a stiff, but Red River went on to triumph, sold boldly as third of but three to have achieved greatness --- The Covered Wagon and Cimarron being forebears. So there at least is insight as to which sagebrushers were figured a finest to '48. Nowadays you can't get Wagon or Cimarron arrested. Don't know about the rest of territories, but NC had Red River flowing through hardtop/drive-ins well into the 70's. Our Starlite encored it often, as late as '74, and whenever corn-dog lots needed a third for John Wayne all-nighters, it would invariably be Red River welcoming the dawn behind likes of Donovan's Reef or The War Wagon. Now comes RR riding out of Criterion, plus a Region Two release, on long-awaited Blu-Ray with clarity enough to taste trail dust, being the "book version" as opposed to narration from Walter Brennan, the latter being what syndication tendered for lo many years before home video and now BR supplanted same (Criterion's release offers both).

Red River for me has always been combination of perfection plus parts to bring on squirm. There is epic-ness from its opening; we figure here is a big one that will just get bigger with passage of reels, what with dialogue promise of a massive cattle drive interrupted by "border gangs," outsize Indian attacks, and inevitability of a Montgomery Clift/John Ireland showdown. That little of these happen and still Red River is good speaks well to Howard Hawks' delivering on money that lagged behind a script's ambition. A lot of Red River is talk, there being nothing wrong in that where Hawks is ventriloquist, but sometimes chat goes past our undivided attention. When man of few words Wayne walks out of scenes, it's left to Clift, Brennan, others to lay down exposition by yards. That happens later too, when characters have to explain what makes Clift's Matt Garth tick, these among deeper holes we cross over Red River. And why must Joanne Dru go on --- and on? Even Wayne can't shut her up.

For pure silly, there's nothing like Dru and company under redskin siege and her asking Clift why he's "so mad." Then she's shot clear through by a poison arrow to barest flinch reaction. Last time I checked, those things hurt, and yes, I'll forgive Hollywood being its unreal self, but this part must surely have got laffs even in forgiving '48 when they were more used to such absurdity. What really saves the enterprise is John Wayne. Hawks minus an actor this strong would come a cropper before and after Red River. Look at The Big Sky (or better, spare yourself), which is longer and as would-be epic as RR. The difference is happy-go-lucky in a most irritating sense Kirk Douglas, who shows vivid why he'd never be in Wayne's class where action heroing was the task. Did Hawks try, and fail, to get Wayne for The Big Sky? By 1946, when Red River was shot, JW was poised for Top Ten placement, that being his pretty much from this show to a career's end. There is so much detail and yes, subtlety, that you'll see in his perf, now that it can be crystal-viewed. Who knew Blu-Ray would render great actors even greater? Gold age, especially B/W, work has suffered a lot for sub-standard presentation through the years.

Here's random ways Wayne excels, and just in a first Red River reel: The trail boss warns him not to leave the wagon train because he'll be "riding into trouble." Wayne gives him that look that says, You're warning me about trouble? We recognize a man who has lived with, if not gone looking for, perils in the wilderness. There were few in the action trade who could pull that expression, knowing and a little humorous, and make it stand for what would follow in a next two hours. By this stage of his career, and at age thirty-nine, Wayne had grown real authority. Look, for instance, at his eyes as Indians encircle his camp during night. The scene is played still and fairly close-up, but Wayne's head doesn't move back and forth to the sounds, just his eyes, and these become more urgent as we, and he, realize attack is imminent. Another favorite ad-libbed (?) Red River moment: Can't you keep that horse still? That Wayne underplayed for most of a career, at least until broadening slapstick infected his 60's stuff, is well-known and endorsed by ongoing acceptance of his style and continued popularity of JW's better films.

Red River Got Lots Of Play at Drive-Ins Emerging After WWII
Wayne had constructed his image as deliberately as any star borne of self-manufacture. A lot want to think he was like the image, but that was years becoming the case. JW didn't believe in "John Wayne" until weight of the icon confused even him as to what was real or faked. As of Red River, he was pure calculation and still a work in progress. Wayne took a lot of instruction from elders and used them as example. He had been raised to respect experience and so wasn't too proud to receive instruction and make helpful use of what vets could teach. Such humility paid off handsome. Wayne was early instance of a star that studied stars who'd gone before. It's known he emulated Harry Carey, but there was also Douglas Fairbanks and Buck Jones, both of whose memorabilia Wayne collected to the end of his life. A friend told me of being approached by JW for one-sheets and lobby cards on Fairbanks, one enthusiast looking to score rarities from another.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Horror Ahead Of Its Time?

Robert Montgomery Goes Psycho for Night Must Fall (1937)

I'll go on a limb to ask this: Did Night Must Fall have impact on audiences similar to sock that Psycho would deliver twenty-three years later? And here's another: Did Hitchcock get his idea for off-casting benign leading men as bent killers from seeing Night Must Fall? I realize this Metro adapt from a Brit stage hit pulled punches, but coming from the thriller-timid lion, it was a brave roar. We never do find out for sure what's in Robert Montgomery's hatbox, though mere thought of its being a dismembered head would have been enough to traumatize audiences who'd never been exposed to stuff rough as this. Was Night Must Fall the first major talking picture about a serial killer who dismembers victims? I pondered that while watching --- couldn't offhand think of any. I'll bet Night Must Fall handed out more nightmares than whatever Frankensteins and Draculas the 30's gave us. MGM actually tried to distance itself from the finished product for fear of backlash, so say histories. Bob fought valiant to play the thing after seeing NMF on B'way and realizing this was the image tweak for him. Elizabeth Montgomery remembered her father hiding in the closet to whistle his character's baleful theme (Mighty Lak A Rose) and scare hell out of her (scarcely a wonder Liz had Daddy issues). Montgomery does a beautiful show of sinister here, maybe his best performance in anything. Till 1937 a cocktail and shakers man, RM really put forth a creep well off path he'd trod so far at MGM.

A Backstory Sequence Deleted From Final Prints
Had any talker star, especially of romantic bent, done such before? Hitchcock had to have been mightily impressed by Night Must Fall (likely an only occasion when a film under Richard Thorpe direction would inspire him). AH's stuff admittedly topped Night Must Fall, but the latter came first, at least insofar as stars misbehaving so. There's more than a little Montgomery in Robert Walker's Bruno Anthony of Strangers On A Train, and of course, Anthony Perkins was final summation of nice young men doing the unspeakable. I admired Night Must Fall as much for what it might have been as what it actually was. For all of caution and Code restraints, this was still pink, if not blood red, meat for 1937. Queasy notion that charmer Bob has chopped up and planted a body in the garden outside a quaint English cottage is still potent stuff of sleeplessness, and we don't really need to see that head to know it's stored in his grip (one character picking up the box comments that "this seems awfully heavy for a hat"). Night Must Fall was remade in the 60's, with Albert Finney far more explicit in his cleaving, but that one lost money for Metro, whereas the 1937 earned profit, if modest, for such a disturber as this chiller surely was.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ads That Sold Sizzle and Steak

Illicit Precode As Fresh Fruit For 1931

I always figured exhibitors were creative participants in movies because it was them that applied punctuation to what Hollywood produced. No film was really finished till showmen got hold of it. They'd look at a pressbook, trailer, synopsis, or trade ad, and right away know what aspect might sell. A single ad done right could boil a convoluted story to its essence. Scholars have spent book lengths trying to define precode, the job having been done for them long ago by original merchants of the form. What west coast producers shipped each week was less finished product than rawest clay to be molded by east coast personnel, with finishing touch applied by theatre management where all bucks stopped. He/she would size up ad accessories and decide if same could be applied to needs of his/her community. Local desks where promotion got prepared was where rubber met the road insofar as keeping lights lit and staff paid.
Illicit was mother's milk to aggressive selling. Consider first the title --- one word and quick to the point, a natural for marquees needing what space there was to boost support attractions (Illicit plus Mickey Mouse!). The old Embassy Theatre in San Francisco, lately renamed the Warner Bros., had been swallowed by earthquake during construction (1906), then rose from ash to be named, renamed several times during interim. Warners used the site to showcase Vitaphone (as above with Disreali in 1929), then bought the 1,387 seats outright. Illicit would "World Premiere" on 1/9/31 at a dollar per ticket, Jack Warner, Barbara Stanwyck, and Mervyn LeRoy personally appearing. Babs was billed as "San Francisco's Own Daughter," but cursory research says she was Brooklyn-born. Suppose anyone challenged the boast?
Illicit isn't really much of a movie, precode or otherwise, being  stiff in joints thanks to talk and pace still on wobbly feet. There hadn't been a lot of lively WB work out of 1930 gates (a few like The Dawn Patrol being notable exception), but the following year showed big strides. What's good about Illicit is forthrightness of modern girl philosophy as expressed by Barbara Stanwyck. She spends whole of a first reel explaining to dullard live-in James Rennie why they should not be married, speech given from horizontal clinch on a divan. He's tired of "pussyfooting" and shun of standards, ... but I Love Pussyfooting! says she, an excerpt that would decorate a number of docus about precode. These ads from first and holdover weeks at the Warner Bros. cull all of what's hot-cha from Illicit ("If I, the woman, do not ask for marriage ... why should you, the man?"). To it's credit, Illicit does deliver on promise of taglines, if doing so at relax pace. Warner Archive offers a DVD, and Illicit streams in HD at Warner Instant.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Hail Their Conquering Despots?


When Dictators Were a Moviegoer Rage

Axis partners of the future were all over US news and popular culture through the 30's. Hitler jokes turned up in cartoons even, and Mussolini took a ribbing by way of Sunday funnies caricature. Screwy part was, lots of folk really admired the puffed-up dictator, guest books to il Duce signed by Doug and Mary, Paulette Goddard, others among biz elite. There was juice enough to float a frankly admiring profile (feature-length) called Mussolini Speaks! (1933) from Columbia Pictures, whose chief, Harry Cohn, may have seen himself in mirrors as Benito (if not, then others surely did). Mussolini was viewed at the least as a get-it-done leader to uplift down-out nation that was Italy. More than a few thought as much of Adolph Hitler, who seemed to be licking single-handed a German depression. Where Mussolini Speaks! was a puff-job, however, Fox's March Of Time short, Inside Nazi Germany (1937), read Hitler in darker terms, casting the "Shadow" of his "Nazi Arm" over America. Movies were charged by the Code to tread light re politics/propaganda, but local ads could be, and were,  frisky at peppering up sensation in newsreels. Sometimes that alone could sell a program, as maybe here where Inside Nazi Germany promises cold splash for an evening otherwise spent in formulaic company of Alice Faye and You're A Sweetheart. Would sock/shock value of the docu-reel plus Disney's visionary The Old Mill add up to value for tickets bought? I've got a feeling Alice was least recalled aspect of this visit to the Aztec.

GREENBRIAR ON THE AIR: Showmen, Sell It Hot was featured recently on Ed Robertson's radio talk show, TV Confidential, wherein I'm interviewed at thirty minute length about the book and showmanship in general. The program can be heard at TV Confidential's Archive, being episode #240, with broadcast dates of July 16-21. Actress Diane Baker and screenwriter Paul Robert Coyle (as co-host) are also featured. Give it a listen and determine how well I'm able to disguise my rampant Southern accent. Also note below a recently received quote re: Showmen, Sell It Hot from eminent author/historian Rudy Behlmer.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Warring Between States Circa 1912

The Confederate Ironclad Goes a Single Reel Round With Yanks

I'll be covering more of these ancients, that more a threat than promise for some, but what compels like civil war subjects done by folk among whom remembered Blue-Gray conflict first hand? The Confederate Ironclad was made in Jacksonville, Florida by the soon-enough-to-fold Kalem Company, another of single reel grocers that sold film by pounds rather than merit. Often they'd ring the bell, as here, with pace and excitement to approach Griffith at Biograph, plus there's inherent appeal to yarns revolved around ironclad v. gunboat action. There's girl spying afoot, this belle's crinoline a disguise for Yankee probing into whereabouts of Reb fortification. Program notes in a booklet for Treasures From American Film Archives (Volume One) speculate that the ironclad used was built to commemorate the anniversary of actual battle twixt Monitor and Merrimack, those names tripping off tongues of Civil War buffs for 150 years since the two clashed for real. Replicas supplied grandeur rare to nickelodeons of the day, and what whoops battle scenes here must have provoked! The survivor print looks great, and there's music from original score sheets to further authenticity. Silent drama shorts like this can be fun and even memorable, and the DVD Treasure sets are just that for gathering so many and presenting them so well.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Two Winners and A Loser

Born Yesterday (1950) Is Born Again On Blu-Ray

Columbia got its licks from Washington for what Mr. Smith had done there, so was this time careful to put as much civics lesson as comedy into Born Yesterday, a defanged depict of politicians bought by loudmouth Broderick Crawford as he shacks up in DC with apparent birdbrain Judy Holliday. This was the latter's breakaway to stardom after capture of raves for the part on Broadway and being eccentric support in a handful of films (most recent and notable of these Adam's Rib). Judy and Brod share a hotel suite in Born Yesterday, big as a floor, but apparently not a bed, though it's left for us to imagine they do. Holliday was something different in realm of humor, her line readings like no one else's before or since. Director George Cukor hailed her ability to go from farce to pathos in a single shot; it's still apparent, and effective, in work she does here with both Crawford and William Holden. Death would close memory banks on a unique talent --- I remember TV listings from the 60's always reading "The Late Judy Holliday" whenever one of her pics was shown. Selling point by then might have been Holden as the egghead who educates JH and keeps us aware that US government is crystal clean despite Brod corrupting a congressman. "One bad apple" could never spoil such a splendid crop as ours in Washington, assures Bill.

The after-drama to comedy that was Born Yesterday occurred on Oscar night (3-29-51) where Judy Holliday was nominated for Best Actress. She was a guest at Jose Ferrer's party to which fellow nominee Gloria Swanson was also invited (Ferrer and Swanson were doing a Broadway revival of 20th Century together). Jose rented New York's La Zambra restaurant and had a radio hook-up with the award ceremony should any of guests cop a win. He'd been nominated for Cyrano de Bergerac, but figured Bill Holden a sure bet for Sunset Boulevard. Swanson had high hope she'd take the prize for the same film over favorite Bette Davis, whose All About Eve triumph seemed a pipe for honors. The hot wire to H'wood was for awardees to address radio listeners live from the party, Fred Astaire being airwave host. Ferrer got the Best Actor nod he'd not expected, but bigger shock by far was Judy Holliday knocking back both Bette and Gloria for coveted Actress statue. The wire photo at right tells not the real story of the winners/loser trio snapped together minutes after announcements: fact is, la Swanson was less than "Gracious" for her loss, and in fact told Judy Holliday that she was "awfully young" to have won the award, having "just started out, with a whole life and career in front of you" (GS would outlive JH by eighteen years). Gloria added that this was "my last chance" to receive such an accolade, and that now she'd miss out on rebirth as a serious actress as opposed to a personality left over from a vanished era. Still, appearances had to be maintained, thus the photo, which saw publication in hundreds of newspapers the next day.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Metro's Two For Price Of One

Unlike The Better-Known Hilton Sisters, This Dishy Duo Was Not Conjoined

The Wilde Twins Parent Trapping In Twice Blessed (1945)

Twin teens Lee and Lyn Wilde beating The Parent Trap and its credited story origin by near-fifteen years, which makes me wonder why Metro didn't cry foul when Disney released its higher-profile remake (or was it outright steal?) in 1961. Near as I make it, the German novel (Das doppelte Lottchen) adapted by Disney was written by Erich Kastner in 1949, but surely this author caught Twice Blessed, by then out a while, though more recently to after-war Deutsch patrons. Did he copy Metro's yarn as all appearances indicate? Twice Blessed is hotter-wired to teen habits of its day than safer playing The Parent Trap, and the Wildes are surely a saucier pair than two scrubbed Hayleys. As barometer to jitterbugging 40's youth, Twice Blessed is one priceless capsule, moving brisk along 76 minutes that never goes tiring. The Wildes were a novel parlay with talent enough to score individually, even if MGM never saw fit to part them for individual vehicles. This was their sole starring showcase, otherwise work being specialty placement in Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble and similar pix. Twice Blessed should be better known, and credited, for being first with a concept popularized considerably more by ones who'd borrow brazenly from it.
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