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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Collegiate Comedy Circa 1949


Higher Education When Mother Is A Freshman

Loretta Young wangles way into college at late date (age 35, so her character claims, although LY herself was but 36 in '49) for the sake of bratty daughter Betty Lynn, who's gaga over English prof Van Johnson. No surprise that he'll flip for Loretta, even as years of movie stardom had calcified this actress to appearance older than her actual age. For being at the job so long by 1949, Young must have seemed anything but youthful to an emerging second generation of viewership. She plays comedy not unlike melodrama, both an essential same to a performing mechanism whose focus seemed more on coif and costuming. Collegiate setting is what pleases, the whole of campus exteriors shot at the University Of Nevada at Reno. This was Loretta Young's return to Fox after eight years, having been queen there, but tiring of statue parts they'd assigned her (maybe they understood appropriate casting better than she). There's a sophomore dance, music borrowed from previous Fox pix, and to-be stars among student body (Debra Paget, Barbara Lawrence). Professor Van explains to Loretta at one point that there's nothing inappropriate about faculty dating students, the college having progressed to a point where such is OK. He also has a live-in, uniformed maid at his gingerbread teacher's residence and is fully equipped to support Loretta, plus daughter's tuition, should they wed. Struggling educators of the day must have gotten a yok out of that.




Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Valentino Manning Up


Rudy Sets Sail in Moran Of The Lady Letty (1922)

Rudolph Valentino learning two-fist ways as a pampered youth shanghaied aboard Walter Long's scurvy ketch. This was Rudy's first after The Sheik. Uncertainty as to spelling of his name pervaded ads of the time, though the heaven knows he'd changed it enough times himself. Paramount's notion was to man up RV and get him well off perfumed desert sands. To that they'd succeed, as Rudy transitions well from idler to hard-bitten. Here was a player who deserved better than programmers Paramount gave him. They were exploitative as well, failing to back their boy when he got in a marital jam (as in wed to two at once). Moran's lead lady was Dorothy Dalton; in fact, the title refers to her, not Valentino. Maybe Para cast DD so femmes could reasonably say, If she can have him, then surely I could ... that's how un-glam Dalton looked, although she gets more appealing as the pic wears on. Rudy was too exotic to ever play All-American. Had he lived, I can see him as precode dweller after Ricardo Cortez fashion (or better put, Cortez following after Valentino example), and later, doing character work along lines of Ramon Novarro and Antonio Moreno, both being effective in that capacity for many years. Moran Of The Lady Letty has been nicely transferred by Flicker Alley as part of their Rudolph Valentino DVD Collection.




Monday, April 14, 2014

RKO Attempts a Saucy Mix


"America's New Sweethearts" In 1956's Bundle Of Joy

RKO listed five reasons in trade ads why Bundle Of Joy would do "capacity business" for Christmas 1956. I'll not cite them all, but chief was Eddie Fisher, white-hot off TV, making his star screen debut as duet with wife Debbie Reynolds, "America's New Sweethearts" as anointed by fans and press. And what better basis for showmen to tie-in with local merchants than Bundle being set in a department store during holidays? That's essential charm of this otherwise labored comedy, 50's consumerism dressed in Technicolor an irresistible parlay. Premise had served Ginger Rogers seventeen years before as Bachelor Mother, a title which of itself drew patrons in hope a Code would be violated, which of course it wasn't. Still, this seemed a yarn worth remaking, but think how few years the situation had left to shock. Unwed motherhood as basis for social outrage got airing the same season, but on serious terms, with MGM's These Wilder Years, but maybe RKO had a better idea playing it for laughs and music as here.


Fifty-eight years is a long time in which to forget how popular Eddie Fisher was at prime. His Coke Time was a network hit and Eddie/Debbie merged for 50's mindset to something like Doug/Mary in idolatry of yore. Ebay-bid a '56 fan mag and chances are they'll be in it. Seven songs were cleffed for Bundle Of Joy, and RKO centered selling around them. Fisher got what Army Archerd called a "fabulous" deal: publishing rights for all the songs (there'd be a soundtrack LP) and 35% ownership of the film. Coca-Cola was solidly aboard for promotion, Fisher closely associated with the soft drink product thanks to his ongoing TV stint. Coke would festoon thousands of delivery trucks with Bundle Of Joy banners, this a "precedent-breaking move" on the corp's part, according to pic publicity. Two-million was production budget set by RKO, a more than generous figure for the troubled firm. Summer production for Bundle Of Joy saw a largest ever number of requests for star photos, Fisher alone or Fisher/Reynolds, 11,262 letters received during one record-shattering week. Richard Dix and Helen Twelvetrees, of former RKO employ, never had it so good in long-gone 30's.


Hard to believe there were once 6,000 Eddie Fisher fan clubs active. We think of him now, if at all, as somewhat the heel who made enemies of ex-wives and those he'd defame in scathing memoirs. Does anyone listen to Eddie on CD? I liked his tuning for Bundle Of Joy, and there's a boyish quality opposite better screen-experienced Debbie, she a grizzled vet beside newcomer husband. Reynolds was like Grace Kelly in that both were pledged to MGM, but loaned out to Leo's considerable profit, in DR's case, to RKO and also for Tammy and The Bachelor at Universal-International. Bundle Of Joy is banquet for speculation among those who'd tear masks off H'wood hypocrisy, "arranged" marriages, and perfect couples who were anything but. A best approach might be to read some of  scorched earth books written since Bundle Of Joy, then watch the movie. Warner Instant has been streaming a gorgeous HD transfer in 1.85.




Sunday, April 13, 2014

Stan and Babe Do A Crash-Out


The Second Hundred Years (1927) Among Early Laurel-Hardy Comedies

Laurel and Hardy are goal-birds in what was evidently sold as their first "true" team comedy, though I don't necessarily trust myself reciting such stats. Just when did patronage begin recognizing these two as matched pair? They dig out of a cell, tunnel into the warden's office, effect escape from there in guise of painters. Robert Youngson made hey-hey with this one in The Golden Age Of Comedy by emphasis on Stan whitewashing a flapper's pert rear. Laurel-Hardy really hit ground running, their characters fully developed almost from start. Hal Roach must have levitated on realizing the mine he'd found. Stan does chasing of a cherry round the dinner table bit that rocked houses, so good as to inspire re-do by comedienne Anita Garvin months later in another L&H, From Soup To Nuts. LA locations are used for prison exteriors, then it's to Roach backlot for street scenes charmingly simple and seeming a corner away from Chaplin's Easy Street. Wonder how many blocks Roach built on site for comics to play on --- were there more than the one shown here? This Second Hundred Years is, to my mind, among funniest of Stan/Babe's silent output; certainly it was a favorite on 8mm. Just wish prints were better. There's nitrate crumble here and there --- maybe we should just be thankful it exists at all.




Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sinatra and Company Stick It To The Enemy


A Shoot 'Em Up War For Never So Few (1959)

Frank Sinatra alternates between China/Burma combat and R&R with Gina Lollobrigida. Among fighting force are soon-to-be-stars Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, Never So Few a preview of the sort of actioners they'd engage as WWII movies became the stuff of 60's fantasy. This was among early occasion for enemy troops blowing up real good for always outnumbered, but never outfought, allies. Director John Sturges saw his future in said approach, increased distance from the actual war enabling battles to be staged in comic book terms. Still, that was action viewership wanted, and if we're to trace back Hollywood's blockbusting mentality, Never So Few may be a place to start. The project was slated for travel, but only a second unit went, the principals held to Metro backlot and nearby locations.


I call this a Hugo Friedhofer movie because his score is the best thing about it. Sinatra romancing of Lollobrigida is a drag through which we await return to battle stations. McQueen shows vividly what a next generation of stars will look (and act) like. His gunfiring in place of words makes the rest look like over-talkers, SMc early on hep to fact that dialogue was something action men did best without. Politics jerk a rug from under a once-ally as Frank and troop expose betrayal of GI's by the soon-to-go-Red China, making it clear we were wrong to have ever trusted them. Payback is a third-act massacre they surprisingly get away with, a rare if not unique instance under the Code. Burmese scenics look great, but it's obvious Frank and friends stayed home, their jungle a same one Tarzan traversed at Culver. MGM was slow to recognize a public fed up with faking re backgrounds. Never So Few plays on Warner Instant in HD and looks terrific.




Friday, April 11, 2014

Fox Film Corp On Perilous Voyage


A Precode Transatlantic (1931) Trip

I expected more from this precode Fox release, but maybe it's unfair saying so for a shaggy-boot DVD that was last resort after years wait to view. The situation promises much, a Grand Hotel aboard ship that predated Grand Hotel, but where's the iceberg I kept expecting? To sink was surely de rigueur for melodramas afloat over an entire length, though William K. Howard's flashy direction makes up for much; he was a dynamo for Fox who'd slow down when later transplanted elsewhere, having come from film selling in the Northeast for Paramount. Howard got initial jobs megging after brag to Para brass that he could make better movies than what he was peddling to hinterland Bijous. "Just give me a chance," he said, "and I'll show you how pictures should be made." And so he did, from the silent era to immediate postwar retirement. Film historian William K. Everson was enough of a Howard admirer to adopt the director's middle initial for his own. The best of WKH, at least talkie-wise, was probably done at Fox, output there including Sherlock Holmes, The Power and The Glory, and zippy-as-all-get out The Trail Of Vivienne Ware, one that deserves to be widely seen, but isn't.


Edmund Lowe is a shady, but do-gooding passenger who rescues distressed femmes Lois Moran and Myrna Loy from respective threats, a part I could see John Gilbert playing had Transatlantic been done at Metro. There is precode content, but keyed below pitch fans look for today. Does 20th Fox or archives have elements for Transatlantic? My disc credits were French and there was dialogue missing. A shame to think it can't be seen decently, considering a rich production, eye-appeal art direction, and what's said to be groundbreak lensing by James Wong Howe, all these gone wasted on latter-day presentation we can barely see/hear. Have precode festivals run Transatlantic? Guess not, as I haven't heard of a print source, Transatlantic not among oldies Fox packaged in 1971 for their "Golden Century" syndication group.




Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Brassiest Of Wartime Revues


An All-Star Thank Your Lucky Stars for 1943

Thank Your Lucky Stars is a wartime revue that stays largely off the topic of war. It may be a best of many that included MGM's Thousands Cheer, Paramount's Star-Spangled Rhythm, Universal's Follow The Boys, and Warner Bros.' other contribution to the group, Hollywood Canteen. WB was for me a preferred of these because their attitude toward talent and themselves was most irreverent. A Looney Tune sensibility had seeped into live action at Burbank. Whereas Metro and Para did us favor of privileged glimpse behind scenes, WB made theirs object of spoofery and personas going surprise direction. Bogart and John Garfield the tough guys? Let one be cowed and the other sing. Had Errol Flynn or Bette Davis sung/danced on screen before (let alone had she jitterbugged)? They would now. Much that was unexpected to 1943 viewership happened here. They surely were delighted.


Such jamboree amounted to studio display of trophy rooms. For a public eager to know stars in natural habitat, they were Sunday rotogravure and fan magazines sprung to life. Favorites trying the unaccustomed would, among other things, reveal employer estimation of artists' ability. Most talent is seen to advantage in Thank Your Lucky Stars, but not all. Bogart the badman threat is unable to be so with S.Z. Sakall, who gives him a slapping. HB's the slacker among Stars who sing/dance. Was he so inept for that, or unwilling to pull a number together? Sahara was in progress, so Bogart is unshaven. As "himself," there was no recourse but the gangster, his Casablanca transform to romantic lead man not fully cemented (Thank Your Lucky Stars was in production from late 1942 into 1943, period in which Casablanca premiered and then went into general release). But Bogart would always be condemned to wear Duke Mantee's mask, his WWII camp sketches built around the actor seeking a "mob" among servicemen to oppose Axis gangland. He'd even grow back stubble and be Duke again ("Nails" Bogart) as Jack Benny's 1953 TV guest.


The Garfield spot isn't as dogmatic, for at least he sings (Blues In The Night) and there's wit in changed lyrics to accommodate him, but Garfield too was mired in Warners' perception of him, intro as "The Bad Boy Of Burbank" unbecoming to an actor who needed mature parts to get out of casting rut. It was stars who surprised in Thank Your Lucky Stars that came off best. Bette Davis was held till late in proceedings for her act being most anticipated. She did They're Either Too Young Or Too Old, which became a wartime standard. There is almost violent jitterbugging she engages, which director David Butler recalled as injurious to the actress (multiple falls, scarped and bleeding knees). Davis had advantage of being at career peak here, enhancing a can-do-anything resume, and offered song-and-comic relief from high dramatics the lot of her starring WB vehicles.


David Butler as director was invited to Warners by friend and Lucky producer Mark Hellinger. Butler made it his business to get along with everyone he worked with. There was jolly countenance about him, helped by portly build and attitude that movies were just a job you did as best you could. He was the ideal journeyman, but no slouch for good results (Sunny Side Up, San Antonio, It's A Great Feeling, Calamity Jane, several of better Bob Hopes, Shirley Temples). Whatever Butler lacked of inspiration was made up with affability. I wonder how Orson Welles' career might have worked out given some of Butler's people skills. Thank Your Lucky Stars took half a year to finish, with multiple units at play. Butler had to divide time between "book" sections and the star specialties, a process not unlike what had gone on with WB 30's musicals where narrative was isolated from Busby Berkeley highlights virtually productions in themselves.


A largely unsung value of Thank Your Lucky Stars is fact that it was a last stand in a big movie for Eddie Cantor, not too different from Goldwyn's Eddie-All-The-Time formula that worked so well in early to mid-30's. For his dominating book portions here, there are two Eddies, but who tabbed the already comic legend to play himself as such an ego-driven louse? Warners tended to go rough on stars doing themselves, as evidenced by the Bogart bit, but there was nothing of Cantor's image to suggest so obnoxious a character as posited here. The nebbish alter-ego is relief from the Hyde that is "Eddie Cantor," and both make most of comic opportunity, but which among Thank Your Lucky Stars writers had it in for Banjo Eyes, a mistreated former staffer from his radio program perhaps? In whatever case, Cantor was lucky to have such a showcase in light of his air series having dropped from the Top 20, and movies lately giving him a go-by. And if not for Thank Your Lucky Stars, we'd not have minted-for-a-new-war We're Staying Home Tonight, a neat tune done with the old Cantor brio.


Thank Your Lucky Stars is about crashing Hollywood gates rather than Axis barricades, unusual among wartime revues, all the others charting narrative and much of song upon course to victory. Dennis Morgan and Joan Leslie are star hopefuls; they want less to win a war than appear on Eddie Cantor's broadcast. In fact, neither mention the conflict. Of star production numbers, the one most foursquare to war interest is Errol Flynn's That's What You Jolly Well Get, unusual for its combat "hero" revealed as a liar and braggart, Flynn in Music Hall mode and Cockney voice/garb. If Thank Your Lucky Stars was reveal of untapped talent, his may be a most startling, there being nothing of Flynn's past to suggest aptitude for song/ dance. The fact he's spoofing his own image, which would be seriously tarnished by an extended trial on statutory charges, made the act work on levels beyond surface pleasure. Thank Your Lucky Stars is available on DVD and has streamed on Warner Instant in HD.

http://www.amazon.com/Showmen-Sell-Hot-Merchandise-Hollywood/dp/0971168598/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1397141332&sr=1-1&keywords=showmen+sell+it+hot

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