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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Part Two and RKO The Bring-Back Champ For 1948-49

A Five Week Rush on New York's RKO Palace for Late '48 Combo of Pompeii with She

Postwar Lines A-Plenty For The Last Days of Pompeii and She

Merian Cooper and most-of-time partner Ernest Shoedsack were the team to make magic of movies during early-to-mid 30's. Nascent fan culture forming in that decade saw rapture in each they did, King Kong to remain a near-religious experience for boys born soon enough to know it new, and chase reissues from there on. Ray Harryhausen was among them, and Ray Bradbury, Forrest Ackerman, their circle of friends. I read somewhere that one would call the others on sighting of fantasy revived, She at a far-flung venue, or Kong back, either but an L.A. bus ride away. The group would gather and go, as we might thirty years later when there was more of this stuff to chase. Among senior class of fandom was George Turner, who loved She enough to hunt down principals involved in its making and interview them for what later became a splendid American Cinematographer piece (June 1995). Then there was super-fan and eventual writer Alan Barbour, who looked longingly back (in his book, A Thousand and One Delights) to boyhood 40's when he caught She with The Last Days Of Pompeii during their 1948 bring-back. For this generation, She/Pompeii was brocade to savor where and when possible. I wish there were more of their recollections left. What's there lies most between covers of OOP books or old magazines, as fewer of these fans would last unto blogging and forums generation. An online loss we feel is limit to first-hand recall of moviegoing and fan culture, the 50's for most part as far back as Internet participants go.




Boston Braces For The Mighty Pair, Shows From Early Morn Till Late Into Night


She and The Last Days Of Pompeii made big industry news in 1948, their reissue a resounding vote for viability of old pics. Encores were crutch to postwar biz hobbled by higher production costs and product shortage. Short-run theatres and burgeoning drive-ins were knives through butter of available stock. Distribs figured oldies for tonic, so out went stuff dating way back, including She/Pompeii in Chicago and New York to gauge viewer interest. Encores never were offered on faith. All had to be vetted at regional level to make sure a wider audience was there. Only then and with B.O assurance did vaulties venture beyond test ground. November saw the pair getting business beyond even first-runs in Gotham and the Windy City, the Palace in New York, former legendary vaude address, decking out its lobby with an active volcano toward "circusing" the show (Variety). Results were a best gross since Sinbad The Sailor two years before. Final tally saw She/Pompeii pulling $97K over a 30 day stand at the Palace, with $72K a total after a month at Chicago's Grand. By mid-November, decision was made to send She/Pompeii countrywide.






Merian Cooper noted the splash and took initiative. He and Argosy producing partner John Ford, the two having hung independent shingle, "moved quickly on behalf of Argosy to clear other works of Ryder Haggard and Edward Bulwer-Lytton" (Variety, 11-16-48). These included "three other (Haggard) properties in the high imagination vein of She," and an "unpublished sequel" to Last Days Of Pompeii from Bulwer-Lytton's heirs in possession. Ford-Cooper had concocted a "Special Adventure" concept to go forward with these and similar properties. Was John Ford as enthused for such lavish plan, or was the trade announcement mere fruit of Cooper's over-excitement? Whichever way, nothing along adventure lines happened beyond Mighty Joe Young being "raced" toward May 1949 release, Argosy's newest a beneficiary of the reissue combo's success. Cooper had confidence that his gorilla-on-loose would click for audiences that thrilled to the vintage duo.


Chicago First Week Sees 34,000 Admissions to the 1100 Seat RKO Grand Theatre, Lines "A Block Long"




Trades applauding them saw She/Pompeii as "extra gravy" for RKO, the venerable pair reaching "a completely new audience" not around when the pics were new. She/Pompeii continued to astound as they crossed country, gross at L.A.'s Hillstreet Theatre taking in one day what the shows individually got in a week back in 1935. RKO had let Last Days Of Pompeii go non-theatrical route prior to the new dates, schools and churches in receipt of 16mm prints --- these would now be called back in favor of paid admissions. Variety acknowledged that certain oldies, "like whiskey, improve with age," all the sweeter for mere $25K it cost RKO to make new prints plus fresh paper. Rivals sniffed dollars and wanted their share, Warners sending out Angels With Dirty Faces and They Drive By Night to fight fire with B.O. fire. MGM would float The Wizard Of Oz again, and Paramount, whose only 1948 revival was DeMille's The Crusades, began the new year with expanded list of vaulties.






Plover, Wisconsin Gets Open Air Dose of Combo Action
So what was explanation for She/Pompeii's mop-up? Variety cited teens as eager patronage, plus "public's desire to see the costly spectacle films which current sky-high production costs have ruled out for most of the majors." RKO searched shelves for more that might click: a Tarzan pair from earlier in the 40's, six of George O'Brien westerns dating back to the 30's, a Disney two-fer of Dumbo with Saludos, Amigos, and encore of Top Hat plus maybe more of Astaire/Rogers to ride wake of MGM's re-teaming of the pair as The Barkleys Of Broadway. Brightest of RKO ideas for follow-up reviving was Gunga Din with The Lost Patrol, a handshake to make evergreens of both (they'd be back yet again on 50's safety stock and stay in some territories for years after). All told, She/Pompeii would take nearly a million in worldwide rentals, ultimate profit a joyous $550K, more gain than any new release for RKO in 1949. As previous noted, She is available on Blu-Ray, while The Last Days Of Pompeii streams in HD at Vudu and Amazon.




Monday, March 20, 2017

Sensations For Two Generations

November 1948 --- Socko Broadway Revive for Twin Spectacles from Merian Cooper and RKO

Pompeii and She Click Best Where Paired --- Part One

She and The Last Days Of Pompeii are for those who’d relive King Kong by way of his apostles. A same team did both, but wouldn’t succeed to Kong level with either. She was out of circulation and a collecting grail for years, Pompeii around to pique interest for volcano finale by fx-wizard Willis O’ Brien and reuse of Max Steiner Kong cues. Ray Harryhausen made late-in-life project of colorizing She, his mission to in-part fulfill Merian Cooper’s dream of Technicolor for the 1935 release. There is a Blu-Ray of She in black-and-white plus the colorized version. A ten minute chunk in the middle is from 16mm elements. That footage had been lopped from a reissue RKO did in 1948. Idea at the time was to pair She with The Last Days Of Pompeii, and to keep total run-time below three hours. She would later end up with Raymond Rohauer. It appears he snaked ownership through buyout of H. Rider Haggard story source. RKO successors in interest should have challenged RR on this. They probably would have beat pants off him (along with other distribs, had they but challenged yard bully that was Rohauer). Maybe RKO figured She wasn’t worth the beef. Meanwhile, nobody got to see the thing. It was stills and Ackerman-applause in Famous Monsters that kept eternal flame lit. Did She ever play television back in the day? Not to my knowledge.






There was a bootleg LP of the Max Steiner score at a time when the movie seemed deep-sixed. Teacher/historian William K. Everson ran She to his class in March 1972, noting at the time that it had been out of circulation for twenty years. He added that not even producer Merian Cooper had a print (so where did Everson score his?). Thanks to the more/less vanish, She became a pretty obscure picture. A last big noise it made was indeed decades before, in 1948-49, when the She-Pompeii parlay made trade headlines as second coming for postwar reissues. More on that later. Again to collecting quest, someone in the 80’s told me that Brit historian and TV producer Philip Jenkinson had a 16mm neg of She, but he was famed and unknown personally to me or anyone that could vouch for me, so I let it alone. It was tricky in those days to approach collectors out of clear sky. Who might you be other than a film narc? More than one contact I’d make would deny having prints or just hang up on me. A particular problem with She was Rohaeur looking under rocks for bootlegging, keen threat because he knew so many lizards. One supplier of She who was hands-down a right guy was Charlie Vesce, who's gone now, but a friend to all collectors. There ought to be a book to salute people like him. Men like Charlie kept lights burning for otherwise lost or neglected films.




She stayed in our consciousness thanks to a Hammer remake in 1965, plus Blackhawk selling 8mm prints of a silent version with Betty Blythe. I was blithe about Blythe because Blackhawk's She was a feature and expensive, me limited then to comedy shorts. The Hammer show had Ursula Andress as titular threat, her also a threat to neighborhood parents, one of whom told my mother that She was nothing more nor less than pornography, this as I was moments from heading downtown to see it. That plan scuttled, it would be forty-five years before I saw She. Hammer had a biggest haul from any of their so far exports to the US ($1.5 million in domestic rentals). It was sex that sold, Andress in varied degree of Undress for all of posters and art. This was where Hammer Glamour was truly born. For a first time, they'd get kids plus teens plus Dad. She being good or bad was beside point. I didn't like billing at the time, Peter Cushing and especially Christopher Lee somewhat down a list of participants, but no one could fault Hammer and stateside distributor MGM's commercial instinct. This She put Hammer in a money class they'd build on with following year's One Million Years B.C.






She and The Last Days Of Pompeii were 1935 magic carpets flown by Merian Cooper, who had lately managed RKO into a nervous breakdown for himself (or heart attack --- take your pick of historical accounts). The company was snake-bit by Depression. Cooper’s King Kong was a help, but a flock of Kongs couldn’t put RKO right. Cooper thought higher volume an answer, but this just meant more pictures a public didn’t care to see. Ideas that engaged Cooper went fantastic ways of Kong, and given better times than these, he’d have got a higher ceiling to stage further wonders for a picture world. Trouble was 1935 being near-nadir of industry health, RKO in receivership and breathing on an iron lung. Cooper got a contract upon otherwise quitting the place, two projects along spectacle line, each, he understood, to cost a million. Run-up to shooting saw those numbers halved, along with abandon of Technicolor that Cooper planned for She and The Last Days Of Pompeii. Had such promises actually been made, or was Cooper’s grandiosity on overdrive?




The Technicolor he envisioned was not the old two-color which was done deal in any case by 1935 (except for cartoons trying to buck Disney). The process had not caught on as hoped, viewers put off by limits to the spectrum and it being no enhancement to filmgoing. Cooper was, however, a champion for Technicolor, plus investor, promoter, and pied piper to rich friends who came aboard with cash enough to give a new and improved three-color technique the decisive boost. RKO was just too cheap an outfit to back a pair of already expensive shows with added cost of multi-hues. Should Cooper have known better than to imagine they could? She and The Last Days Of Pompeii were expensive beyond custom of RKO in any case, She at $521K, Pompeii costing $818K.




Friday, March 17, 2017

All-Night Gulp of AIP


Jim and Sam Sell Exploitation In Bunches

Sam Arkoff said in a 70's interview that no American-International picture ever went out of release. As long as there were prints, any of them could be booked. Solution to wear and tear was to cannibalize stock on exchange shelves, a bad reel tossed from one print substituted by better reels from another. Ongoing mix-match could keep oldest product in service for years, until finally there were no good reels left of anything. Theatres could use AIP backlog to supply a kiddie bill, late show, all-nighter, wherever there was need, and limit of cash to fill it. Latter half of the 50's saw emergence of AIP as exploitation's handmaiden, their black-and-white combos a hopeful ticket's worth of entertainment. That couldn't last as the market became oversaturated and other companies took to a same scheme. Sam and partner Jim Nicholson knew they'd have to upgrade the product in order to compete ... no, make that survive.




With House Of Usher underway, plus imported gladiators ("a turning point," said Sam), the team knew color was a future toward single bookings and an end to double-barrel cheapies. Still laid the dogs in depot kennels, however, and though played out as pairs, these might yet service need for marathon or dusk-to-dawn use. Why not group them as four now that they'd lost value as two? The B/W bunch had been announced to TV in June 1963. Five ABC owned-and-operated stations got exclusive run through a first year, then twenty-five more markets bought in for 1965 and onward play. The package was lush, 69 titles, with seven in color. Whatever the exposure on TV, showmen could still book the lot as whatever porridge they pleased, rentals cheaper for the more they took. AIP did fresh one-sheets to boost the foursomes, plus ad art to serve a theatre or drive-in's pick of genre. Themed programs were a standby, especially on outdoor screens, so what better than a "Mighty Blood and Guts War Show" or a "Hot Rod Riot Thrill Spill Show"? With five groupings offered, possibilities seemed endless.




Drive-ins especially were big on "Fright Nights." Never mind that lots were fairly bare by the time a fourth feature wound down. Mere promise of a feast would form the line, and who cared what individual titles made the cut? All seemed the same to average viewership. Customers were there for fun beyond what a screen showed. Playgrounds, a cafeteria grill, maybe even pony rides for the kids ... it mattered not a hoot if it was Night Of The Blood Beast or Dragstrip Girl illuminating a white surface. AIP was ideal for these jamborees because their stuff wasn't even made to be watched attentively. Distraction was factored into all of what Jim and Sam put out. I'd have found a chili dog with fries and ice cream lots more engaging than The Headless Ghost, then or now. Maybe it's fitting that most of these AIP's can't be accessed today. Imagine being home alone and marathoning four at a sit.

Thanks to longtime poster collector and expert Bill Luton for the pressbook that was basis for this posting.




Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Making The Best Of Code Crutches


Mae West Juggles Censor Balls in Goin' To Town (1935)

Crackdown of the Code came in part to make an example of Mae West. She'd be a first bad apple plucked from decency's barrel. The brawl over Belle Of The Nineties was less clean-up of that '34-release than notice posted to all of industry: You'll Not Release What We Don't Approve. Hollywood must concede or else. Tough stance was mostly a rig to mollify hick censors and would-be boycotters, it being vital to make them feel like victors in a contest for viewer morality. Trouble was, this threat did have teeth, as Northeast theatres found after Catholic priests mobilized customer no-show in vital urban markets. The squawk cost real dollars, and so had to be addressed. Goin' To Town saw Mae West back in the fray after presumably learning her lesson. She'd fought such battles for most of a career, so knew how to punt. Goin' To Town wouldn't/couldn't be She Done Him Wrong or I'm No Angel, but it's as good a West vehicle as we or she could hope for under very trying circumstance of Code-socked 1935.






There was a PCA seal that went in front of credits for a number of that year's output. Audiences began booing them on sight, so it didn't last. A larger public, folks who actually liked movies and paid to see them, hated the spoon-feed. In fact, movies had become spoon bread, the Hays Office resented for making them so. Still, it was necessary evil if the business was to stay in business. Mae West would have to walk the chalk between ribald and her former outrageous. Goin' To Town has her signature cheek, plus wit penned by the star. West had habit of giving scripts a once, if not twice-over, to instill words/gesture unique to herself. Seemed she could trust no one to gag-up dialogue, not unlike one-of-kind the Marx Bros., who had strong writers behind them for stage work and the better movies they did. West went it in large part alone, for after all, who knew the character better than she? Of concessions Mae further made, one was to dame fashion, which by '35 dictated she be "streamlined" (read: thinner) what with Goin' To Town being current set and necessity of its star squeezing into modern dress.


Goin' To Town As In Broadway Premiere for Mae West's Latest




Paramount Puts Oldies Back in Late 40's Circulation
I saw a late-in-life interview Mae West did with Dick Cavett on You Tube. She's posed as ever on a divan, starts off doing the Mae-thing, but settles then into serious recount of a career and how she sustained it for gadzillion years. What I admire about Mae West was fact she knew it was all an act, would say so where given opportunity, in fact seemed refreshed when scribes had sense enough to address her as a working professional rather than "Mae West." So powerful was the image, however, that most, including Cavett, could not get past it. West was remarkable for overcoming problems the Code created. She'd earn lots bigger money from Paramount after enforcement than before. Her vogue would have ended eventually in any circumstance. As it is, she had nine solid years of stardom between Night After Night and My Little Chickadee (would-be comeback of The Heat's On was a miss). Worth noting is fact Paramount reissued all of Code-approved West vehicles in the late 40's, so interest in her did sustain, and well before she assumed camp/counterculture interest in the late 60's.






West had a same issue as colleagues-at-Paramount Bill Fields and the Marx Bros. All were well into maturity by the time talkies beckoned. For Mae, this meant care with costuming and movement. Notice how still she is at most times, seemingly in repose even where standing. Something I noticed in Goin’ To Town was diminutive Mae West in comparison with others, men and women. Accounts suggest she was five feet tall. I wonder if that’s not on the high end. Her public knew Mae had been tamed, but evidence shows Goin’ To Town made money, and the film does have movement, lively situations, and dialogue spicy as West could make it under restriction imposed. Her crash of high society is a set-up any of fans, then or now, would approve, and though a comedy, Goin’ To Town tells its narrative straight (there is a third act murder, but with Monroe Owlsley as victim, most would call that pest removal). Goin’ To Town has been long out of circulation, other than DVD (as part of a West collection). Occasion to re-see was courtesy RetroPlex HD, lately home to several Paramount and Universal oldies.




Monday, March 13, 2017

Frank Makes Old Seem New Again

FS Put Ring-A-Ding-Zing Into Autumnal Private Dick Pics

Sinatra Turns Sleuth for Tony Rome and Lady In Cement

There was, by the 60's, a daylight Frank and a darker Sinatra of the night, this according to those who worked with him on this pair of detecting thrillers where FS put on his Bogart hat and tried for series status as road-worn gumshoe. Fascination with him rests still with the music, of course, but there's also Frank as font of personal quirks that saw kindness on one hand, unchecked hostility the next. Bios are easy to get lost in. There's a two-volume epic by James Kaplan that I'd nominate best-ever at summing up Sinatra life. Kaplan spoke to players who told glowingly of FS as most patient and generous of colleagues, but then comes apparent reign of terror as conducted by Sinatra and hangers-on at dark environs of Miami and Vegas during wee hours when fellow thesps rested up for a next shooting day. Here's query: When did Frank sleep? Was deprive of that reason in part for his wild temperament swings?




Lights Out for Hat Wear in the Late 60's, But Frank Hung In
Tony Rome and Lady In Cement are recently out as a Blu-Ray double from Twilight Time. Both are bountiful as thrillers and 60's antique roadshowing. Sinatra was in creative charge of the pair, as was case with most movies he'd done since the 50's. They may not be outstanding as a lot, but each are X-Rays to the skull of this singular man who made them happen. I'd say Frank sang mostly for the love, and did films largely for the loot. He was a good actor who didn't think acting needed a lot of focus. Well-known is fact he got restless beyond one take, forbidding repeat of effort except for urgent cause (equipment snafus, planes overhead, off-set dog barks). On the other hand, he'd wring a tune like a chicken's neck to get it perfect, his patience at recording the stuff of legend. Here, then, was where Sinatra made all his movies special, and that was in their scoring. Disc and concert associates were aboard to swing out background that made Sinatra features a listening pleasure, whether he sang or didn't.




Still a Kissing Bandit, with Batman Bad Girl On Receiving End
Tony Rome was scored by Billy May, Lady In Cement by Hugo Montenegro. These forgive any mistake the films make. I'm guessing Sinatra spent more effort conferring with May and Montenegro than with Gordon Douglas, who directed both Tony Rome and Lady In Cement. Douglas is dismissed as a weak helmsman who let Frank push him around. I'd say truth was, FS used GD because latter knew how to get jobs done without fuss, which Sinatra famously did not like in movies. When historian Ronald L. Davis asked Douglas years later about working with Sinatra, word was that Frank showed up always on time and knew his dialogue, that as much as star or director likely sought from Tony Rome and Lady In Cement. Could be too that such attitude is what makes them unpretentious fun unto present day, air of relaxation and little at stake a help to enjoying both. Records indicate, however, that the pair lost money, possibly for negative costs pushed to $3.4 million in both instance. It wasn't that the shows were unpopular, just that they needed more to cover cash laid out. Pity they didn't continue, but unlike Dean Martin's Matt Helm group, which were cheaper and looked it, the Rome thrillers gave better than they got from 60's patronage.


Raquel Taking On Another Dinosaur Two Years After One Million Years B.C.


Sinatra's screen image was approaching an uncool place as he passed fifty. This was age unseemly to lead a rat pack, or seemed so, and Frank looked more establishment as he thickened and the hairpieces stood out more. Cohort Dean, on the other hand, still had a lion's mane and hatful of jaunty dissipation. Junky as the Matt Helms were, he'd lend them contempt they deserved (I actually walked out on The Wrecking Crew in 1968, unheard flip-off when time in theatres was most precious). Telling was Sinatra as beleaguered family man to Martin's swinger office partner in Marriage On The Rocks, one that showed starkly how winds would henceforth blow. Was the Rome pair Frank's bid to channel late pal Humphrey Bogart? It was a good idea whatever his reasons, but Sinatra may have overlooked fact that Bogie played detective on but few occasions over a long career, and never went series route. Still, the Romes are not unworthy tribute. He plays it straight, doesn't kid source material (novels by Marvin H. Albert), and falls down gamely in fight scenes he'd not shunt to stunt crews.


Not a Few Of Us Were There in '68 For Fun Of Hoss Whooping Frank


Heavy weight on the Romes was to reach younger crowds, Sinatra now the stuff of Mom or Dad's enthusiasm. One and maybe an only way of tapping fountains of youth was to use glam that had been in hipper movies of late, like Jill St. John, Sue Lyon, or Raquel Welch. To my fourteen-year-old mind, Lady In Cement was best served by Welch and novelty casting of "Hoss" Dan Blocker, Sinatra OK but more old-shoe comfy and less likely to stir their kind of excitement. Now we know these for hooks they were to widen an aging star's reach. Lady In Cement grossed slightly better than Tony Rome, and I'd guess Welch was at bottom of that. Estimation at the time, for me at least, gave Dean Martin an edge for westerns he kept doing as Sinatra stayed more-less with modern dress (though exceptions None But The Brave and Von Ryan's Express pleased well). By all account, Martin admired westerns and did at least one per annum through mid-to-late 60's otherwise festered with the Helms. He played straighter on a horse and didn't look down to the genre. As result, his westerns are not dated and neither are his performances in them (sample good ones: Rough Night In Jericho and Bandolero!). The cop/private dick trio Sinatra made (The Detective, more serious, came between the Romes) were probably Frank's action answer to success Dean had with outdoor work, and to that purpose, they'd serve well. These are in several ways most enjoyable vehicles the Chairman got out during era-of-change that was the 60's.
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