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Friday, May 27, 2016

It Had To Happen Eventually ...


Women Of America Boycott George Sanders!

A long-standing favorite, The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami was never easy to find, being independently made, distributed by UA, then let to TV among mix of NTA features. It is subtitled "The History Of A Scoundrel," hence George Sanders as lead. There is a lovely Blu-Ray just out, much to the good as Bel Ami has layers of atmosphere splendidly photographed (Russell Metty). I had 16mm prints during chase after that format, none to approach how this disc looks. Whatever approval has been withheld might now be freely given, for the Albert Lewin-directed feature (his best, I think) may now be seen to same advantage as heard (dialogue and epigrams so good that I used to jot them down during 70's TV broadcasts). Surprise for me, after twenty or so years since seeing Bel Ami, was how understandable, if not sympathetic, Sanders' character plays. A scoundrel yes, but gripped by ambition he can't deny or resist --- also truthful at all times, and how many scoundrels can lay claim to that?


I always felt The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami beat socks off The Picture Of Dorian Gray, the latter wider-seen, more lavishly produced, but for me stricken by central weakness of Hurd Hatfield as title character. Sanders was there too, and we could wish he had played Dorian, or at least be woven more fully into action. His Bel Ami uses people badly, the whole point of narrative, though it's hardly a likeable lot he grazes on, plus he has advantaged position of underdog, thus pass we'll give for at least some of misdeeds. Georges Duroy (Sanders' character, also referred to as "Bel Ami" based on his caddish conduct with women) is less instigator than provoked by his enemies, principal of which is Warren William in a final role, their conflict a highlight. Georges' climb is as much a defense against Paris snobbery that blocks his transition from provinces that betters disdain. He'll use lethal intellect and way with women to force way up social, economic, and political ladders. I find myself rooting for Georges to make it, which might say more about me than him. Director and writer Lewin does not soften Sanders scheming, but deep-buried humanity is there from a start. It would need a hard heart not to feel a little sorry for severe comeuppance Bel Ami gets in the end.


The story is based on Guy de Maupassant, but ended up being more Lewin, who did the screenplay. Lewin felt movies needed intellectual uplift: "I always tried to make pictures that would please me and some of my intelligent friends and still please the general public enough to pay off." Lewin also referred to himself as an "equilibrist," a word I know not the meaning of, and will resist looking up. Obviously, this man was no studio's pet. He was able to make indie pact with David Loew for The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami in wake of The Picture Of Dorian Gray earning a small profit (very small). They aimed at first for Technicolor, but realities said otherwise. Shooting would be at the doomed Enterprise studio, which was rented, then left by that company, thus Bel Ami move to RKO-Pathe. Bugaboo for independents was always having to find space to make your movie --- it wasn't as though majors flung open gates to accommodate you. A theme song was got out months ahead of Bel Ami, a hoped for boost. Introduced by popular "Hildegarde" of airwave fame, it was also waxed by Dinah Shore, then others. A larger stink developed when a group called the Associated Women's Club found out just what The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami was all about ...


The fuss was aired over half-a-year before the film's belated release (delays thanks to UA having a glut of product). Club women tipped to Bel Ami content were quick with salvos, claiming the film's effect on youth would be "deleterious and harmful." Lewin, Loew, and Sanders (each named specifically) displayed an "insulting and offensive attitude toward women's position as a public figure, and homemaker." Such inference must be "eliminated" to avert a boycott by membership nationwide. Whatever the filmmakers thought, United Artists saw publicity value to put just-previous The Outlaw in the shade. Nothing but good could come of the dust-up, especially fed by quotes like this: "This savage criticism of women must be stopped and the presentation of the anti-feminist thoughts of a disillusioned French in the sex-dominated book, Bel-Ami, will be thoroughly boycotted by members of our organization." For UA to run with this would be risky, as better than half a potential viewership hung in the balance, that half being one that largely decided what movies families and couples would go to see.


Further publicity centered around a painting to figure into Bel Ami narrative. A contest was had among name painters to submit a most appropriate canvas. The eleven results would tour US galleries. Another stroke of what seemed luck came when Boston's mayor called halt to an exhibition at the city's famed Copley Gallery, his shut-down prompted by nudity as rendered by artist Paul Del Vaux (Max Ernst having been winner of the contest, so censorship didn't become an issue for the movie). Loew and Lewin promptly filed a $200K damage suit that got in papers coast-to-coast. This was in October 1946, when The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami was thought to be imminent in theatres. Who knew that it would be Spring 1947 before the thing finally played, by which time heat from the controversy had cooled considerably. The Associated Women's Club flap and Boston business was more-less free ink, but to keep kettles at boil, UA sank $250K into Bel Ami's ad budget, high for them, and a vote of confidence for what was hoped to be a Big One for 1947.


Key art for posters shows Angela Lansbury clutching at leg of an otherwise unseen George Sanders. This was figured not just to grab attention, but to become a trademark, as familiar as icons used to sell other products. The Sanders trouser leg would equal Jane Russell's haystack pose for The Outlaw, razor image on behalf of Spellbound, other visuals that delivered for past pics. The art tours were also revived, showmen encouraged to consult local museums for tie-ins. "Bel Ami vs. The Women" was figured for a "Battle Of Barbs," femme readers invited to answer insults as spoken by George Sanders in the film. The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami was left to sink or swim with these, plus lingering value of the song, and linkage with the de Maupassant book. Reviews were no assist, being mixed when not outright pans, like Bosley Crowther's in the New York Times. "Sink" became more like a drown, The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami taking a ghastly $389K in domestic rentals, one of UA's sorriest performers that year. Did even Lewin's "intelligent" friends show up? If so there must not have been very many of them. Hopefully a latter, if not so erudite, generation will come finally to embrace The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami.




Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The 1955 Spectacle They Saw ...


Washington Gets Side View of Strategic Air Command

I'd like to know just how many US theatres played Strategic Air Command in true horizontal VistaVision. That experience must have been riveting. I saw White Christmas in a vertical 35mm print made up in 1954, and frankly, it wasn't that sharp. The Blu-Ray looked much better. I'm guessing there were kinks in those initial 35mm reductions from horizontal negatives. It must have been ironed out, however, because even 16mm looked glorious on these VV titles. A print I had of Strategic Air Command was a pip in that smaller format. The battered ad above was from the Washington first-run of SAC. They had it in 1955, and as is apparent here, rode hard on "Horizontal Projectors." There is footage of such a unit in a Paramount newsreel detailing the SAC world premiere in Omaha (which was the Command's headquarters). We see the operator threading his machine as the audience awaits their thrill. It may be the only film of horizontal VV inside the booth, if that's of significance to anyone beyond hardcore pic-techs. A lot of fans claim VistaVision as best of all widescreen processes, but how many of them have actually experienced the real thing? I'm wondering if even one of the horizontal projectors survives. There were only a handful to start with. Query to experts: Were any VV's horizontally projected after Strategic Air Command? What about The Ten Commandments? I never heard of it being shown that way, but maybe someone can enlighten me.




Monday, May 23, 2016

Lights Out at Monster Housing


A Happy Ending Universal Took Away: House Of Dracula (1945)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is beloved, sacred, in fact, among those of a certain birth order. To criticize might be profane, but I still resent the 1948 send-up for its casual re-infliction of Larry Talbot with the curse of lycanthropy. He'd been cured at House Of Dracula's conclusion, giving the Wolf Man saga an upbeat finish, Talbot deserving of release from his five-year scourge. Putting him back in unholy bondage was plain dirty pool so far as I was twelve-year-old concerned, and time passing won't forgive. Again, here was me taking monsters too seriously, but wait, the Talbot character as enacted by Chaney was sincere and in fact deeply felt, the actor's own proudest achievement. Shouldn't we, or Abbott and Costello, be as reverent? I'd have liked A&C Meet Frankenstein better had a recovered Larry come to assist of Chick and Wilbur in disposing of Dracula and the F monster, his past experience coping with each valuable toward vanquish of the pair. Do you suppose Chaney mentioned the continuity goof when approached to do his Wolf Man yet again, or did money button his lip?


There was, in fact, a Castle home movie reel called The Wolfman's Cure, released late in the 8-16mm cycle (1976), according to Castle Films: A Hobbyist's Guide, by Scott MacGillivray. Those eight minutes, indeed House Of Dracula in toto, argue that redemption of monsters is doable, provided rehab is overseen by professionals not over-awed by creatures coming to them for aid. Unflappable Dr. Edelman is equal to task of healing L. Talbot and Dracula, his at least partial success a balm to we who sat frustrated through lifetime of chillers where always comes the cock-up. I for one wanted Frankenstein's monster to thrive, for the Mummy to retrieve lost love, for a Karloff experiment to succeed. Chaney/Talbot of all these was most sympathetic. He enters House Of Dracula "a tortured man," as one character observes (baggage from the Inner Sanctums, plus their signature mustache, increases emotional weight upon LC). The Wolf Man never kills in House Of Dracula, crimes on past occasion answered for sufficiently to Code-permit his survival this time out (alas, not a consideration he'd receive in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein).


A 50's Bring-Back for HoD w/Fiend Accompany
House Of Dracula went out in December 1945 with Pillow Of Death for lethal bedmate. It was the last "serious" horror film from Universal along series lines (that is, ones with Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, Wolf Man et al), though to call any serious invites scorn (hence quotation marks). House Of Dracula, however, seems silly only from a lobby, or TV listing's, distance. It's not laughable beyond glut of monsters that by now seem to travel everywhere in tandem. Ads loaded dice beyond what House Of Dracula offered legitimately, thus a "Hunchback" among fear squad that is actually timid and ill-fated nurse Jane ("Poni") Adams, a contract starlet who by this time had to wonder if marriage to a Universal exec (any exec) might get her out of this tar pit. The studio had announced a $750K budget for House Of Dracula in March '45, wildly out of proportion to what normally was spent on these, so probably not taken for truth even by the Variety scribe reporting it. House filled houses during January 1946, "very strong" as a single at Broadway's Rialto, and three weeks with Pillow Of Death in Chicago first-run. I'm settled that horrors weren't dropped at Universal for falling receipts. It was instead a policy move to classier fare, a same broom that swept serials, B westerns, and action cheapies off Universal decks.


There is a weekly program on one of the sub-channels hosted by "Svengoolie," a 50/60's spook guide resurrected for those who deposit at memory banks. Watching him, especially a House Of Dracula with him, is close as digital comes to way- backing. Miss commercials with late night monsters? Svengoolie has them. He will at the least remind us of what seeing these things used to be. Universal's menagerie has never disappeared from TV. Some outlet is always using them. I wonder why TCM hasn't scooped the lot (of apx. 75 titles, from 30's creakers to 50's weirdies), a concentrate to pour upon viewers predisposed to nostalgia. One thing I learned from exhibiting to college crowds --- they really respected the classic monsters. If there was laughter, it was affectionate. Karloff-Lugosi personas stay potent, it seems (word-of-mouth from parents, or their parents?).


Why House Of Dracula today? --- because there's a Region Two Blu-ray recently out. It's maybe not great, a little variable from part to part, but it will do, and a big improvement on what's US-available (still just a standard DVD). Following is unrelated to that, but I'll tell it: collector and dean of fans Richard Bojarski told me once that original horror stills were rare in NY shops even in the early 50's when he got started. Dick had a file cabinet full of treasure. Some of his trove saw print in Castle Of Frankenstein  during the 60's. I remember there were behind-scene fotos from House Of Dracula, one of which turned up on Bojak The Bojar's (his CoF handle) dealer table at a Gotham paper-con. His price was $300, a wild figure back in mid-80's when he asked it. Today the same pose would get that handily. Will Universal monsters ever stop being collectable? Or more to point, will their desirability outlive my generation? Of posters and whatever knick-knack is out there, I'm told the U fiends stay hottest in hammer-down terms, as in thousands for a starting bid.




Friday, May 20, 2016

Was Football A Dirty Game?


Precode Takes The Field in College Coach (1933)

Precodes could be frankly amoral, part of their charm, as in this gritty forerunner on coaching job Pat O'Brien would reprise as Knute Rockne for scrubbed-up games overseen in 1940. Compare the two and know tight wire all of Hollywood walked under enforcement's heavy hand. Football as shown in College Coach is pure racket, everyone from players to faculty to school trustees on the make, or take. I figured Pat for serious comeuppance, if not jail time, for what he pulls here, but 1933 imposed little such for screen scoundrels, so off he goes to another and more lucrative spot where we may assume a new fix will be in. O'Brien instructs his team to disable a rival player scoring in a game's first half. They end up killing the guy, for which Coach Pat feels no shred of guilt. Neither is he really called to account for it. Precode is all well and good except where we side with victims, and here is instance of that. I don't necessarily begrudge this coach his happy fade, but do confess to mixed emotions.


College Coach posits corruption of higher education as fait accompli. Where football is played, learning is forfeited. Teams are so many dumb gorillas that hold classes in contempt, their instructors bludgeoned into giving grades for no effort at all. Faculty is bought merchandise; only Donald Meek as a chemistry prof has a conscience and expresses it. His department colleague, clownish Herman Bing, is more representative of teachers as a whole. Members of instructing profession must have hated, or ignored, College Coach. Indifferent stance might have worked as well, this a mere programmer in and out of towns in a day or three at most. Besides, precode got round to insulting every group, race, belief, ethnicity, eventually. And there's what we love about it, after all. Fun is mining good or even outstanding characters and performances from College Coach and precode lot. Lots excel here: O'Brien, Dick Powell getting good dialogue and making most of it, with just one song shoehorned in ... Ann Dvorak, husband O'Brien leaving her alone nights, a real stretch to credulity ... Lyle Talbot, a lunkhead grid star, and Hugh Herbert less annoying than usual. Re Dvorak: Note how, in ad at right, she's billed as "The Girl Who Ran Away From Stardom," interesting reference to contretemps Dvorak was having with WB brass at the time.


Just how ruthless was the game where played for high dollar stake? It's flat out said that football was the only way schools could raise revenue. I'm told that's still the case, only more so. We just had a scandal at an NC university involving students not showing up at all for classes and still getting credit (some graduated with honors). The College Coach twist of a boy being liquidated on the field for playing too well weighed heavy on me for not realizing such stuff went on. There are also players given cash and automobiles for dressing out. Do schools even bother hiding such conduct anymore? Again, it's me taking an eighty-three year old movie too much to heart, but certain truths don't date, and college football is a bigger-than-ever business, so ...


William Wellman directed College Coach, thus its helping of guts. Was he a ball fan? I checked the recent bio by Bill Jr., but it doesn't say. Game scenes are robust and as much big-time grid action as audiences outside newsreels, or attendance to the real thing, were likely to get. Movies liked sport as a theme, because with action plus romance tacked on, you could please all of a family. We're shown that there's big money for coaching, as in $40K a year as O'Brien is here offered, and that alone would excuse lots of bad behavior for Great Depression viewers. Quick look reveals John Wayne as a student trading single line dialogue with Dick Powell, but why doesn't Duke show up in the many locker room scenes that follow? One reason may be actual All-Americans of the day used for background. Various grandchildren must still seek this show to spot them. I really liked College Coach, put off watching for too many years, and would give it pennant as best of 30's football pics. There's a DVD from Warner Archive, which was what I watched, quality just fine.




Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Last Resort For Burnout Nick


They Warned Us: Don't Expect Too Much (2011)

College students team with dissolute director Nicholas Ray to make what he hopes will be a comeback movie. That's thrust of this documentary that plays like three-act narrative. Will Nick pull himself together enough to mine coherence out of 8/16/35mm hodgepodge? He'd spend years trying, vision clouded by alcohol and drugs to which he was firmly addicted. How did he last even for two years' contract with Harpur College, located in upper state New York? Permissive times these were, kids more into "finding themselves" than getting educated (has there been change as to that?). So many come across as crybabies: Ray directs one who weeps as he shaves off an unsightly beard, this after Southern "rednecks" gave him grief for hippie-look and trappings. I was really into this (watched twice) for being in college at same time Nick was pulling his time at Harpur. Not sure if I would have bought into the commune set-up he devised; the guy comes off like a cult leader dispensing tough love and "killer weed" to spoiled brattage that should have been hauled home by Mom/Dad and put to real work. A lot of what Nick spouts makes no sense; he was really trading on a tragically spent rep by this time. At one point, he tells kids that he did indeed write and direct Rebel Without A Cause, to which one not unreasonably replies, Then what are you doing here, man?




Monday, May 16, 2016

A Universal-Stanwyck Dice Throw


The Lady Gambles (1949) Is Better Than Ads Look

Universal by late 40's was back in cheese trade. Their try at prestige had gone a-flounder, thanks to frequent flops. 1949 would usher in cheaper westerns, garlanded with color to good result, sand-and-sex w/ Yvonne De Carlo plus others at appropriate talent level, and on the way --- Ma/Pa Kettle and Francis the chatting mule. Here was profit's way to go, and it worked. U would lay a banquet table for Decca Records' eventual takeover, then creeping takeover that was MCA. What of good pictures amidst this exploitation? One was The Lady Gambles, which took serious account of card/dice play as crippling addiction, Barbara Stanwyck staging downfall to make Lost Weekender Ray Milland scarlet with envy. So what did Universal do with so valued a property? Sell it like piano roll in a whorehouse, per usual. Must have --- in fact, did --- make creative participants blanch. But this was Universal, so what could they expect?


Director Michael Gordon was interviewed years later by Ronald L. Davis (Just Making Movies, excellent book) and would complain of the title. The Lady Gambles atop lurid ads was no lure to Academy votes, despite Stanwyck a more than deserving lead. Interesting how postwar saw Davis/Crawford having their up/downs (mostly downs), while Stanwyck did continuous good ones minus fuss. Gordon spoke of her no-temperament and good humored finish of work. I toted her 50's record against actresses at similar level and found Stanwyck charting far ahead in terms of still-watchable (Executive Suite, The Violent Men), or lately cultish (Witness To Murder, There's Always Tomorrow). Throw in Titanic, To Please A Lady, Blowing Wild, Jeopardy, work with Mann, Siodmak, Dwan ... Stanwyck quadruples quality work any of others did. Of these, The Lady Gambles ranks comparative minor, yet a winner and worth the seek after Universal's DVD set of it and five others with the actress. Released in 2010, back when U still had transfer standards (check the recent Alan Ladds and see how far that's slipped), the Stanwyck set is safe bet for The Lady Gambles alone.


There is location at Las Vegas as it was in beginnings. Stanwyck and screen husband Robert Preston (very good) visit Boulder Dam a year before Edmond O' Brien ran loose there. Treatment of gamble habit is cautious; we're shown it's OK in moderation, Stanwyck's character stood in stark relief to calm companions who bet for recreation and know when to quit. U had to tread soft to get site privileges. The town would not have welcomed a black eye from filmmakers, or depiction of gambling as potential sickness to be shunned. So who negotiated terms of depiction? The Lady Gambles was surely Mafia-vetted to some degree, the place built wholly on crime dimes and policed on self-help terms. Gangland operates in the film, but on margins, bad eggs tending to float in from out of town, and headed good-riddance way once schemes collapse. The Lady Gambles would make splendid pairing with Casino. Has anyone thought to combine them? Gordon said he "really researched" the addiction angle, and it plays credible. I'm not sure there had been a movie before 1949 that took the problem serious. The Lady Gambles is a fine one that should have got more credit then, and certainly recognition now.




Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Picture New York Had To See


Public Enemy (1931) A Spring Sensation at the Strand


It's been writ that Warner Bros. got back many a negative cost off bookings at Broadway's Strand alone. Here may be instance of that ... Public Enemy in a fifth "All Records Broken!" week, 488,519 people clocked so far, according to a holdover ad above. For Gothamites, Public Enemy was all but a home movie, sensations on screen against a backdrop short distance from theatres where it played. Worth noting is James Cagney's name on neither ad, his still a comet rising. The face is here, and those exiting would not forget impact of that, Cagney as star soon enough to arrive in vehicles his own. For now, Public Enemy needed but shock of content and word spread like hot butter from those who'd been shocked, to others that soon would be. Whatever flame Little Caesar started, this blazed bigger. Gangster films lost stun capacity as novelty wore off and censorship applied anchors, but for now, it was hold onto your nerve for jolts to equal what outright horrors were serving. On topic of compare with those, I wonder how Strand's mob reacted when mummified and title-role Jim fell through the door at Public Enemy stun-gun finish. Think there were audible gasps? I'll bet so.
grbrpix@aol.com
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