Classic movie site with rare images (no web grabs!), original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Robinson Reads Riot Act

I Am The Law (1938) Calls For Swift Justice

Edward G. Robinson is here at crossroad between tough customers and character leads (or strong support) he'd play in a 40's decade to come. I Am The Law pleases for being precisely the Eddie we like, an intellect handy with fists when needed. As a law professor drafted to clean up rackets, he begins naive, then picks up street smarts at pace sufficient to make a blistering second half of ninety minutes. Columbia had being doing yearly quota of racket busting B's, so I Am The Law was mere increase of budget and care on ground they'd trod well. "Mister Big" in these situations was always charming and civilized, with often as not Otto Kruger embodying same, a good thing here as elsewhere for Kruger's capacity at shading what would be a stock character in lesser hands. Civic rights are pleasingly trampled, Eddie telling thugs in custody that he'll "beat their heads off" then and there (his words), and does just that. Charles Starrett couldn't have managed so good a slugfest as Robinson (and his double) engage here. The star had seen a slump by the mid-30's  alleviated by the hit that was Bullets Or Ballots for home-lot Warners, thus renewal of contract there and loan-out to Columbia for I Am The Law. Robinson was not a little fed up with criminal work (both as participant and opponent of), but art collecting was a drug that had hooked him, so what vehicles were tendered, he took.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Germans Walk A US High Wire

Variety Vaults Ahead Of Euro Imports

As with many classics, awareness of Variety came for me via The Movies, epic, and sixth-grade acquired book by Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer. They put a still from Variety on page 203. Every time I heard the title since, that image flashed up (it's at left, scanned from my fifty year old copy of The Movies). Problem was having no access to the movie. Variety never turned up on Region One DVD to my knowledge. Now it has, and on Blu-Ray, from Kino. Variety is heavy and very Germanic. People pay dear for wrong moves. Relationships unwisely entered into have dire consequence. Jannings would make a career playing no-fool-like-an-old-fool, but that came after Variety, where he's younger, but still foolish. Women used Jannings badly. He looked like someone to make a chump of. Fullest flowering of that would be The Blue Angel, his signature part. Eggs cracked over your head is surest signal you've hit bottom. Jannings did as much offscreen for going whole-hog w/ Germany's film industry after Hitler took over. He did starring roles aplenty for them until Allies marched in and closed the show. There's a story I read where G.I's coming down a Berlin street were confronted by a gibbering old man waving an Academy Award and claiming he was duped, or forced, or whatever, to work for the Nazis. It was Emil Jannings. He died a few years later, having been shut out of work and derided for his give-in to the Reich.

There's an excellent book by Budd Schulberg, Moving Pictures (1981), that tells the author's story growing up on the 20's-and-early-30's Paramount lot, where his father, B.P. Schulberg, ran production. Reading this memoir is like being there back when. Budd talks of Bow, Bancroft, all the Para people, including "rotund and unforgettable" Emil Jannings. B.P. had seen Variety and 1924's The Last Laugh. Like an industry in whole, he was dazzled. So how to bottle Jannings for US consumption? The scheme would be to go Euros one better for stark content, Schulberg arguing to Paramount grand chief Adolph Zukor that offshore grosses would cover whatever shortfall the pics had stateside. Zukor's reply was OK, but make them cheap. B.P. did so, five times, before Jannings played out with talkie arrival and chose not to combat microphones. Like with Clara Bow and Louise Brooks and W. C. Fields at Paramount, you sicken at all of work now lost. Of five that Jannings did there, only one, The Last Command, survives intact. EJ worked with Jo Sternberg, Lubitsch, the cream of émigré directors. I'd guess the missing quartet would rank from great to epic. Sometimes it's best just not to think about all that is gone.

At least Variety is here, and for that matter, much of Jannings' silent output prior to Atlantic cross. People figure all of German silents for downer content and endings, but Variety, for all of harrowing lead-up, has a hopeful if not altogether cheery finish. I say that not to spoil, but to reassure that Variety is no crush of your day for watching, and quality is beyond imagining of anything this old and presumably abused over years at PD wandering (lately asserted Euro copyrights have been salvation of a near-whole silent legacy). To upbeat fade, there is, of course, the most outlandish of all, The Last Laugh, where Jannings and director F.W. Murnau lay on a happy ending to end them all, as unexpected then, and still, as any final reel in movies ever was. Who says Germans had no sense of humor, because this was done very much in fun, a release of balloons to ridicule all distributors that demanded smiles as we left cinemas. The Last Laugh and Variety were worldwide hits, Jannings figured to have redefined dramatic performance in films. If Paramount hadn't hired him, someone else probably would have. He was antidote for too much froth as critics and sophisticated viewers saw it, even if not a leading man in stalwart sense. In fact, Jannings was a pioneering character star, an imported loser at love and eternal sufferer to help carry some of Lon Chaney's bags for US patronage.

Jannings had intensity and sometimes scary in right circumstance. When not a shuffling old man, he could be a convincing brute lover. Variety puts him amidst seedy environ of circus sand. E.A. Dupont directed. He was one of those with a big future for which things went unaccountably wrong, or at least not up to snuff that Variety foresaw. Early appreciator of film art Robert Florey must have studied Variety with a close lens, because his Murders In The Rue Morgue for Universal in 1932 looks at the least like homage, if not frame-for-frame copy. But for Germans, where would our visuals have been outside of cactus ground Tom Mix rode? Their influence was just huge. Another way that Variety scored, at least for viewership with smarts, was sex content, which if understated, was still leagues ahead of timidity Hollywood still adhered with. Censorship played havoc with Variety when it was released over here, a near-whole deck of narrative cards reshuffled, but they couldn't dull edge of erotic knives in Dupont drawer. Variety was lauded by critics for telling at least partial truth of what went on between men and women. Jannings was, of course, the cuckold, but one who at least gets even, all of infidelity, suspicion, what not, giving rube watchers a glimpse of how sex politics was played among Euros free of inhibition that chained us. Kino's Blu-Ray is highly recommended, and there are good extras.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Don't Watch TCM Without It ...

Richard Barrios Does Musicals Proud

Atop Greenbriar pyramid of author/historians is Richard Barrios, who wrote hands-down best survey of All Talking/Singing/Dancing film, A Song In The Dark, which I've read twice and have consulted many more times than that. Barrios also gave us Dangerous Rhythms, where he deftly follows musicals past earliest sound era to the present. It's fitting this author address the genre for, besides being foremost authority re musicals, his is a voice distinctive and product of lifelong research. Big plus is Barrios wit and turn of phrasing, this common to whatever he writes. Being also a collector for many years lends knowledge of each film's afterlife, as none existed in mere bubble of years they were released. All is brought to bear on the author's newest, Must-See Musicals: 50 Show-Stopping Movies We Can't Forget. Barrios intro-confesses struggle to pick but fifty from such wealth of favorites, a commission I'd not envy him, but which choices I applaud. The book also bears TCM's logo, this apt for most of selections played often there. Regular viewing of the network will be much enhanced by handy access to this book. I certainly will be inclined to forge for all fifty now with the author's eloquent appreciations as guide.

Barrios answers so many of questions that I would ask, like what became of talent associated with these films, how/why certain musicals were altered, or off viewer radar for decades (the King Of Jazz and A Star Is Born sagas are told). He considers changed attitudes and impact this has on reaction to musicals. Barrios does not shrink from reality of classics that lost money when new. Who'd guess The Bandwagon sank in red ink? --- yet it did. He points out Singin' In The Rain as last musical to star Gene Kelly and turn profit. He cites Esther Williams own-up to spike of autobio (with untrue sensation) to boost sales. These are truths behind tunes and gaiety that make Must-See Musicals far more than recite of favorites with pics to illustrate. Latter, by the way, is dazzling array of stills, poster art, rare behind-scenes glimpse, with color imagery seasoned throughout. Must-See Musicals will satisfy both long term fans and newcomers to the genre. Strikes me too as an ideal holiday gift for those hooked on TCM or Blu-Ray/DVD's that are available on virtually all titles that Barrios covers.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Chucklesome Mating Of Eagles

My Little Chickadee Is 1940's Great Expectation

Seemed to many, before seeing it, that My Little Chickadee must be the funniest picture ever made. Certainly stills gave such impression, W.C. Fields and Mae West (reverse that --- she's billed first) in resplendent costume, both looking for all of world like caricatures from one-after-another 30's cartoon as career of each (in Fields' case, health too) passed peak. He was still the bigger noise, in for more Chickadee gravy than West, according to W.C. bio by James Curtis. Fields and West were truly stars who were in all ways bigger than life, evoking more a flamboyant, circus-bred notion of celebrity. Fitting they should be prolific to cartoons, as they were sort of cartoons themselves, or etchings from Victorian-era books (in Fields' case, a real-life Dickens illustration). Where West hit a wall was public knowing she'd not do an act so ribald as what got her going when films were looser, if not gamier. That put her at from-start disadvantage to Bill.

Here's my softer attitude on comedians slipping: focus on positives rather than obvious negatives. Yes, Mae had much to cope with re censorship, but it's how this monument adjusted that ennobled her, and there's no better evidence than uneven struggle West engages with wily Fields, billed second but ranking first for laffs earned off Chickadee. Each is accorded routines not involving the other, the pair kept separate for most of run-time. West fairly strangles at effort to hip-wriggle sizzle into dialogue where none is there, any/all of suggestion erased before cameras turned. It makes for me a more fascinating exercise to watch her wrest humor from a straight jacket Houdini could not loose from. Mae didn't care for Chickadee in hindsight. Probably she knew it represented swans singing, plus fact she under-earned Fields (his higher up-front plus a percentage). Bill had also thrived on radio, with Bergen/McCarthy, while she'd been run off the medium following too blue tilt with the monocled dummy.

Might Chickadee have done for West what Destry Rides Again did for sister discard from Paramount, Marlene Dietrich? Both had been labeled past-use stock, but from such refuse were comebacks made, and Dietrich's had been remarkable. Universal would peddle recyclable goods off Marlene as modernized Mae, with Destry, Seven Sinners, The Spoilers, Pittsburgh, and The Flame Of New Orleans frames one might visualize West being fit into. Part of problem was Mae turning forty-seven the year Chickadee got out (1940), while Marlene swung into Destry when not yet forty. West in no way could, or would, have done brawling required of Destry, her all the more belonging to gas lit past where compared with even slightly younger personalities. Fields, on the other hand, could age, if not gracefully, then at least dissolutely to joy of many (especially a coterie of critics) who embraced him as last stand against milking down of comedy. Bill had in fact become bastion against politeness the Code forced upon farcing; he'd point out the protest in Never Give A Sucker An Even Break direct address to viewers. Fields would be the greater outlaw against propriety than West, only he'd protest not with sex, but lifestyle unbecoming to moral uplift. What restraint was applied to his act was curb of on-screen imbibe, the PCA watchful where drinks were poured in movies.

Fields was cherished, I think, for freedoms that once were, and now taken away, by proprieties imposed by the Code and adjuncts like the Legion Of Decency, latter a body to beg demolish by Bill for its name alone. He was early incarnation for comics who'd dare to loosen collars around humor. The treasure in Fields was his not blowing with winds of change. I doubt many encouraged around-forever Bill to "update" his act. To believe press at the time, My Little Chickadee had more comedy coming off the set than ever got on film. Columnists led with whatever outlandish thing Bill said between takes, not to mention ad-libbing when he filmed. Fields was never a working comedian in the customary sense, being a man naturally funny in any circumstance. I doubt there was ever sense of Fields' comedy coming from anywhere outside himself. His pausing long enough to declaim gave scribes a next day's squib, as in Fieldsian observation unique to him. My Little Chickadee's pressbook is filled with these, all ready made for publication in where-ever towns the show ultimately played.

W.C. Fields and Mae West have been largely absent from television, satellite or otherwise. TCM leased samples from Universal, these narrow as playlists on oldies radio. The four that Fields did for Uni, prolific once on TV and indeed theatres during the 60/70's, are doled out stingily now. TCM ran The Bank Dick in lovely HD, but You Can't Cheat An Honest Man was a decrepit transfer, even as Universal has a High-Def master on hand. Retro-Plex HD, part of Starz menagerie, had My Little Chickadee. I held breath on opener night in hope theirs would be an uptick, and indeed it was HD and a best Chickadee since days it played revivals on 35mm. A trivial pursuit of mine is ID'ing broadcast premieres of classics in HD. Stations don't bally them, nor is there mention at web pages, so it comes down to set of the DVR, and hope for happy outcome. Recent Marion Davies day on TCM yielded Five and Ten for instance, one I had checked whenever it played over a last several years. Twenty-five year old standard-def graduated this time (August 29) to HD and new joy in this venerable precode. Chances stay remote of titles so remote coming out on Blu-Ray, so lassoing them from TCM, or outliers like Retro-Plex for My Little Chickadee, seem sole way of having them in HD. Peruse of schedules and then recording is worth the effort for goodies often yielded, a revisit in ways to long-ago scour of newsprint and TV GUIDE in quest for rarities.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

A Missing One Few Have Missed

Rathbone Romances Negri in Vertical Mode ..

... Then Tries Horizontal.

Negri Pola-rizes Public In First Talkie

For those who care (how many do?), this was Pola Negri's first talkie. She waited till late, maybe too late, for Garbo and Dietrich were by then giving us all of accents we could use, and Negri's registered harsh besides. She sang what would become a standard, Paradise, though others benefited more by association with it. Negri clicked in silents for same reason Garbo later would: both made love European style, which we saw and took to be reckless abandon. Garbo had softer features even if dour much of the time, while Negri, closing on 40 when she did A Woman Commands, was past enslavement of men stage. Still, RKO Pathe spent heavy for her speech debut, $415K, and result, laden with tall sets and many extras, looks it. Males in support come off better, Roland Young making sly fun where lesser talent would have played it straight, Basil Rathbone giving intense all for sake of modern watchers seeking fun.

To that last comes precious little, for A Woman Commands is gone, as in utterly --- not lost, but may as well be, for non-appearance at TCM (the only outlet that would have it) and access only on boot-disc for most part barely watchable, this the risk of swapping ten spots for pig-in-poke DVD at dealer tables. There must be legal embargo on A Woman Commands --- story rights? --- though most who saw it say it smells (including then-reviews and patronage that kept clear, a $265K loss for RKO). I was fortunate (or not) to get a just-OK copy, and enjoyed A Woman Commands, my curiosity sated re Negri vs. dialogue (she lost) and ravage of time (whatever Pola swains Chaplin and Rudy saw eludes me, though she admittedly had more "It" earlier on). 'Twas largely Basil that lured me, him stiff-backed as piqued lover and still learning screen as opposed to stage craft. Fact is, Roland Young acts rings around both Baz and Pola, a performance hep to times that would be changing. If audiences laughed at A Woman Commands, which apparently some did, then it was with Young, as opposed to at Negri and Rathbone. I just checked You Tube. There's video of Negri singing "Paradise," but no feature, and the song looks/sounds like one of Edison's 1912 tries at talk. Guess we'll have to live largely without this one.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Generations Since We Had It Complete ...

The Sea Wolf (1941) Howls On Warner Blu-Ray

We're about to get dosed up with a more complete Sea Wolf than they've had since initial release of 1941. Warners delayed disc release for years in hopes a complete print might turn up. There was but one in 16mm for the meantime, that owned by actor John Garfield, and later property of his estate. This was shown on isolated occasion, but no way could Warners construct satisfactory whole by ying-yang from pristine, but cut, elements of their own with cloudy 16mm via the Garfield holding. Sounds much like old "uncut" prints of King Kong where inserted snips fell down a quality well each time one popped up. Jumps throughout The Sea Wolf would have been glaring with complaints assured. The  original negative did exist, on deposit at the Library Of Congress, but this was the cut version. Happy find that led to forthcoming Blu-Ray release was a nitrate fine grain at full-length. Now at long last we may sail again, October 10 the launch date. The Sea Wolf has made do with thirteen minutes shorn for seventy years, so Bravo to Warner Archive's righting that wrong.

1947 was chopping date, The Sea Wolf tail-end of a double bill reissue with The Sea Hawk. Both were shortened so theatres could freshen crowds every three and a half hours instead of hosting them for over four. Trims would add at least an extra show per day, and that spelled much paid admission. What did casual patronage care from incomplete versions? The Sea Wolf went from 100 minutes to 87, The Sea Hawk taking steeper drop to 109 minutes from 1940 run-time of 127. Warners tried the duo in test markets during early 1947 and saw two Albany houses equal their house record, a dazzling score for first-runs, let alone an oldie serve. Word of the gross brought 100 requests from outlying showmen, said WB to Variety (4-2-47), and April 26, 1947 was set for a national rollout.

"Unprecedented" day-and-date bookings, on first-run terms, were arranged for the pair, Chicago getting a "fabulous" $19K in a first week, but "falling apart" for a second (Variety) with a mere $8K. Warner's Strand on Broadway committed to two weeks, dropped its customary stage show, but admitted in hindsight (7-22) that Hawk/Wolf did "weak" business overall. There may have been overconfidence in keeping the pair past a single frame. 1947's public was bullish for some reissues, ice-cold on others, as 20th Fox found with "miserable flop" that was Alexander's Ragtime Band, which had lots of promotion money poured over it that would not be got back. As with so many shows, different territories told a different story. Three Warner theatres in the Los Angeles market racked up a "pleasing" $50K for the first Hawk/Wolf week, and nationwide tally had 150 first-run situations grabbing carrot that was The Sea Hawk/Wolf. Variety saw trend of oldies "going big out in the stix" (4-25-47), WB's combo liked by small towns. Bad fallout of the 1947 revive was Wolf negative cut for bunk-in with The Sea Hawk and left that way, all theatrical, and then TV prints from 1956 syndicated release onward bearing the scars. It's lucky, if not a miracle, that the nitrate showed up for Warners access. This then is a Blu-Ray I will be most eager to see.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Gene and Westerns Wind Down

On Top Of Old Smoky (1953) Plays a Familiar Tune

Gene Autry about done in with features, traveling and television by now preferred modes for peddling merchandise that was his personality and song. We see paunch developing --- if earned millions won't permit a good steak and bottle, what's the point? Note increasing role of Smiley Burnette in these later Genes ... was the sidekick so often singing a welcome thing? May-be it was contractual condition of Burnette participating, or perhaps Autry liked time off that Smiley at center stage allowed. Some will say that GA on TV was actually faster and more satisfying than his movie stuff. I've not done enough comparing to say. The features had been produced by Autry since soon after the war and released by Columbia. He'd do them handsome enough to rise above fray of other B westerners --- points of pride, I guess --- but the Autrys aren't necessarily better than westerns on fade at Republic, where Rex Allen was pulling last round-ups. On Top Of Old Smoky was wrapped for a song, literally ($50,201.52 according to Boyd Magers' excellent Autry book), and figuratively (the title tune another hit that sold platters and sheets). Villainy is obscure here; just street bullies for Gene to conk out. Too bad I was born too late to see these things theatrically. On Top Of Old Smoky has played on Retro HD, a big enhancement to an already well-preserved title.
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017