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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Crisis Of Conscience For Brit Pair

End Of The Affair (1955) Probes Love's Torment

From a Graham Greene novel, and unique for tying a religious theme onto exploration of adultery among Londoners during and after WWII. There's a wonderful summary of the troubled project from perspective of David Lewis, whose producing credit this was, in The Creative Producer, a book-length interview conducted by James Curtis. Seems the venture began with Louis Mayer planning End Of The Affair as his comeback after ouster from MGM, but Mayer backed off and the venture wound ways to Columbia release for the US. Like all the big companies with distribution overhead, Columbia needed product to fill pipelines, so kept Brit firms busy via financing and release deals. End Of The Affair, a Coronado Production, got part of ten million that Columbia invested during 1954 in UK independents. Money also went to Warwick Pictures, an outfit with ongoing ties to Columbia, theirs including The Prisoner, upcoming Safari and Cockleshell Heroes. Did these click stateside? End Of The Affair wouldn't, a mere $472K collected in domestic rentals versus exploitable Safari, pushed much harder by Columbia to $1.3 million result. David Lewis thought End Of The Affair was a miss artistically, but maybe his was evaluation based on hopes gone unfulfilled, a common trouble for ambitious producers. The drama played well to me. Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson give good account as the lovers, and there's Peter Cushing fine as the cuckolded husband. This may be Cushing's best feature role before horrors at Hammer swallowed him up. Sony Movie Channel shows End Of The Affair from time to time in 1.85 HD.

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Pyramid For 1954 Promotion

Kurt Kasznar, Robert Taylor, and Carlos Thompson Visit the
Great Pyramid Of Cheops On Arrival to Valley Location

Valley Of The Kings Another World Tour From Metro

Long overdue on proper widescreen, Valley Of The Kings is recently out from Warner Archive to close the gap of location treks MGM took during the 50's as dressing for some of their most important releases. This one hadn't gone missing, was around from the early 60's on television and later TCM, but always at full-frame expense of Egypt splendor Metro spent months abroad to capture. The project was a natural to follow King Solomon's Mines in 1950, and then Mogambo in 1953, both these modern, or at least twentieth-century, set. Valley takes place in 1900, though focus on antiquity and primitive backdrop make then or now interchangeable. Many young people saw and were entranced by Valley Of The Kings on initial release, some inspired to pursue Egyptology as result. Template for the film was Solomon/Mogambo, a lone wolf seeker of adventure in foreign climes drawn into quest by a married woman with whom he'll become romantically involved. The concept would much later be kiddie-leveled for the Indiana Jones series, observers citing Republic serials as primary inspiration for those, though Metro specials were the inspire for bigness. Valley Of The Kings belongs to a time when just seeing the real Egypt on a wide screen was event in itself, and reason aplenty to for once abandon the free-box at home.

Trouble was, Valley Of The Kings lost money, not a lot ($24K), but enough to suggest tides were headed out for location for its own sake. Two million was sunk in the negative, most of that run up during  months cast/crew spent in Egypt. Refreshing then, and still, is no cheating with doubles or second units. We get Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker throughout on actual sites, amusing start of which sees Parker go past the Sphinx in a carriage, smiling in general direction of the camera as if something there was more interesting than miracle of the ancient world  behind her. Valley Of The Kings got a boost from early '54 discovery of the funeral boat of Cheops that made international news and awoke public fascination for relic finds. So what did Valley Of The Kings lack that made King Solomon's Mines and Mogambo historic hits? (both counting profit by millions) It might have been animals gone wild in both, stampeding in the first, a gorilla hunt in the next. Africa also promised more danger than Egypt, which had mystery of its tombs, but also their stillness. Valley Of The Kings has to reach for what action it has (scorpion-creep into bedding, Taylor doing ritual combat with a native, a camel stampede that is no patch on Solomon's entire jungle turned loose). Valley bumps in each instance were a carbon on stuff done in the earlier pics, and not as effective.

At least for the early 50's, MGM was acknowledged leader in the location field. Global shooting policy saw six features done overseas and ready for 1953-54 release, with Betrayed, Beau Brummell, and Adventures of Quentin Durward charted for fall '53 and after finish. Valley Of The Kings began with departure of director Robert Pirosh to Cairo in late September 1953, him having developed and co-written the project. For Pirosh, this was promotion from scribe ranks, but he reckoned not with heavy supervisory hand back home that would impose script changes he didn't want. Pirosh ignoring dispatches resulted in Metro chief Dore Schary sending hatchet man (and fellow writer) Charles Schnee to Egypt for a showdown. Pirosh was warned to tow the mark or surrender his viewfinder. The writer/director would "check off" the Metro lot (Film Bulletin) after job's completion, recalling his ordeal years later for an interview with film scholar Ronald L. Davis. The Egypt stay was long enough, from a September '53 start till early January 1954 return, to stage virtually all of action on actual sites, "a 2,000 mile junket" within that country, said publicity. Metro had a couple of flagship theatres on site, in Cairo and Alexandria, and these were tabbed for dual world premiering of Valley Of The Kings on 7-21-54.

Look magazine ran a September '53 feature on the influx of Egypt-set epics, it being too early to know that each would fail. In addition to Valley Of The Kings, there was The Egyptian and Land Of The Pharaohs spotlighted. Also in gestation was biggest of all The Ten Commandments, three years away from its open, and the only one of crypt dwellers to punch a winning ticket. Latter had advantage of biblical backdrop and DeMille name in credits, though Valley Of The Kings did float a religious theme by making its pursuit not one for plunder, but proof that Joseph's story in the Bible was confirmed by objects found in the sought-after tomb, a notion more fanciful in 1953. Exploration since has supported the possibility, even to point of scholars claiming that Joseph was himself a Pharaoh, one Im-Ho-Tep (not the same Im-Ho-Tep beloved of Karloffians).  Metro designed its fictional tomb after rediscovered King Tut's of historic 20's discovery, though it's unknown if Tut digs were as picturesquely splayed with Solomon-like treasure. All movies would rely on the Tut find to dress graves, him being a modern art director's best friend.

Special Ad Prepared to Tie-In With The Cheops Find

A location jaunt in those days was no pink tea. Movement was slow with accommodations seldom the Ritz. Everywhere you went, so did a caravan, and work didn't start until all were there and set-up to work. Valley Of The Kings star Robert Taylor had been six weeks in Egypt, more than that away from California home, having thrown a party "for himself" (Variety) before leaving UK comfort for last leg of the globe-trot. He'd been oversea for several of vehicles that were castle-set, that is, real castles, for Ivanhoe and Knights Of The Round Table. Now would come R&R duly noted by Variety on 1-6-54. Bob's "holiday" would amount to following: flying his own plane, first to Miami, "thence to NY, Aspen, Colo., for a week of skiing, and then Acapulco for fishing." The spree was scheduled to last a month. This then was a star's life at dusk of a Classic Era, and we could wonder how many others had it so good, or would again after the contract system collapsed. Culver and remaining talent in residence were seeing final days as America's own valley of the Kings.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Bon Vivant Benny Loose On Broadway

Jack Is A Broadway Romeo (1931) for Paramount

Jack Benny still feeling his way toward a lasting persona. Here he's the natty sort once called a "sharper," which was shorthand for not to be trusted. Jack had worked at relaxed style in capacity of emcee for vaudeville and performing there in nonchalant as possible mode. Others like Frank Fay had made careers of introducing with smart-alecking in between. Trouble was being sympathetic in that posture, let alone making watchers identify with you. Jack had tabbed himself the "Aristocrat Of Humor," doubtless realizing risk of being too aristocratic. Smooth could come across as smug, guys like Benny on a high wire from which they might fall. It took radio from 1932 onward to reveal the Benny character's vulnerability, and an audience ready to embrace it. Benny as A Broadway Romeo comes on as man about town and mild lecher after girl passerby Estelle Brody. He plays a mean trick on a sympathetic dining customer that may have seemed clever to Depression-sufferers, but leaves ashes in mouths for many watching now. A Broadway Romeo was Astoria-made, so Jack didn't have to miss evening performances at least. It's a fascinating reel, and available on Kino DVD, Cavalcade Of Comedy.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Where Very Old Looks New Again

Children Of Divorce (1927) Reveals Legends Both Made and In The Making

Clara Bow was for too long a high wattage star in low wattage prints. For me, at least, she's another of those who survive best in stills, if you could find them. Ever seen originals? Creamy, rich, detailed ... and high as a kite on Ebay or auction sites. Once her movies looked like that, when nitrate was the norm. Now they are either lost or eternity removed from camera elements. Two exceptions have come to Blu-Ray as remind of what Clara Bow was and why she made a sensation, Wings and newly-released Children Of Divorce Exhibits A and B of pictoral beauty common to all silent films when fresh on 20's market. I'm just greedy enough to want all of Bow output to look like these, but that won't happen in my lifetime or anyone's to come. Guess we're lucky to have even these two. We could suggest Blu-Ray upgrade for It and Mantrap, a pair of hers that exist in perhaps comparable quality. Ones of us accepting  silents on take-what-you-can-get basis have been succeeded by a generation who'll have them no way but pristine. Digital spoils folks that way.

Children Of Divorce has been around, but not digitally. There were archive runs, at Cinecon once as I recall. Interest runs higher for Bow being joined by Gary Cooper at career start and Josef Von Sternberg as relief director (Frank Lloyd being credited). Children is drama of people making wrong decisions and reaping emotional harvest for it. Bow is willful and for most part misguided, so we spend runtime hoping against a bad end for her. Cooper is lip rouged and likeably awkward in tuxedoed confinement. He grabs attention from start with an almost missed horse leap over hedges (a number of takes he did miss, from what I read). Paramount was very much run on factory basis. You got out requisite number of vehicles and left them to run on fuel a public's interest supplied. That put considerable weight on stars. A Clara Bow hauled perhaps more rocks than she realized, for what would her four-or-so feature output per annum amount to with anyone else in a lead? Children Of Divorce is probably no better or worse than missing Bows we wish would turn up but likely won't. Fact it's here and looks so crisp is sweet icing. This is the sort of disc release that might win new converts to pre-talkie cause.

For the deeper committed, there is Esther Ralston as party mom to reckless Bow and hapless Coop, character traits mirrored by offscreen future and fates of the three. Ralston was a most moderate and sensible in her choices, being married and with child when Children Of Divorce was made, and not for a moment fooled by fairy dust that stardom sprinkled. She'd live long as well to reflect upon it, Bow and Cooper beating her to the barn by thirty years, give or take (GC in 1961, CB in 1965, Ralston in 1994 at age 91). Someone always gets to go last, Ralston having opportunity to speak with historians (or rather, they with her) and consider Children Of Divorce as ancient text it by then was. What a wildly diverse world and culture she knew.

Part of magic Bow and Cooper still exert comes of their hitting the high-life off as well as on the screen, leaving lore for personal ups-downs worthy of drama or farce their movies provided. Meanwhile players like Ralston, however glamorous they register in roles (ER a wow at her peak), simply did the job, went home, and there waited for a next assignment. There won't be a thousand dollar run on Ralston stills at Heritage or Butterfield, even as she did leave a best interview record of what it was like to perform in Children Of Divorce with to-be icons that were Clara Bow and Gary Cooper (and for her look-back, see William M. Drew's conversation with Ralston in his Speaking Of Silents: First Ladies Of The Screen, a marvelous gathering of profiles by a top historian). Children Of Divorce can be had on Blu-Ray from Flicker Alley. There are extras (a Bow documentary written by David Stenn, plus an excellent booklet essay he wrote).

Saturday, January 07, 2017

When Silent Pix Flew High

Bronto-Socko Selling of The Lost World (1925) in Oklahoma City

Picture yourself as a ten-year-old in Oklahoma City during November, 1925. Just another day ... then comes a truck-pulled brontosaurus tall as housetops. Where was 20's sensation to equal that? I'm guessing a circus parade came close, but they didn't have dinosaurs. It's old news that showmen tried harder then. In this case, it was First National exchange manager E.D. Brewer who got the idea. Do his descendants realize there was such genius in the family? I always wonder if such men left scrapbooks. You could figure someone like Brewer for decades of creativity applied to the bally art. When do we stop fussing over directors and laud these guys? Long-term exhibs surely looked back to The Lost World when Sinbad made a Seventh Voyage or Gorgo came to town, for I've seen trade reports of similar stunts applied to both when new. It's known that little boys (girls too?) love all things prehistoric. Did that all begin with The Lost World? Must have been one whale of a Ok. City line in knickers and cap when this mighty attraction touched ground. I could wish to have been there, though price to pay would be not lasting to now, though wait ... maybe there's handful left, in late nineties, or touching 100 even, who thrilled to The Lost World, and may yet have glimmer of a one Oklahoma day when dinosaurs ruled the earth.

England would aim still higher on Lost World behalf. Horace Judge, he of First National's UK publicity division, linked with Imperial Airways, Ltd. to launch "The World's First Aircraft Cinema," a 2,000 foot high play-off of The Lost World "before a select audience of notables and newspapermen" (Moving Picture World, 6-13-25). The stunt was referred to as a "first-timer" for movies shown aloft. Imperial's "air boat" was chartered by F.N. and the film was shown as passengers and crew flew over the North Sea. London press lit a fuse that led to mention "in practically every paper in Great Britain." Rail exhibition had played to success on "crack expresses," so why not raise altitude for showgoing? Big risk we note from years distance is 35mm projection being loaded aboard. Lab rats for First National's in-flight experiment would see The Lost World on nitrate stock, all aboard at said 2,000 ft. and doomed should the print catch fire and engulf the cabin. Well, at least it would happen quick. Or would it? So now let's separate committed film folk from mere casual consumers --- would you fly in an airplane today if they were running London After Midnight, The Rogue Song, a complete The Magnificent Ambersons --- on nitrate? (notice how I tinted for fire, just like in silent movies) Who of us would roll such dice? Depends on how badly we'd really want to see those lost treasures. Look at this way ... at least you'd be part-way to Heaven when sudden, and permanent, intermission came.

More of The Lost World HERE and HERE, and thanks much to Scott MacQueen for the bronto-bally image.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Stewart Again ...

Here Was Conception I Had Of James Stewart Until Age Ten

Dear Brigitte (1965) Dire 60's Notion Of Family Fun

Saucy Euro Alternative to US Poster Art
I was carried with cousins to Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation in summer 1961. It was my first exposure to James Stewart on a theatre screen. Line between this one and the Disneys was porous. Both had kids and dogs, harassed dads, and for that season at least, Maureen O' Hara (The Parent Trap a few weeks later). To me at the time, Stewart was so much Fred MacMurray, essentially the same guy. Neither seemed particularly funny, or representative of fatherhood. They'd soldier on, however, in things like Mr. Hobbs, or for MacMurray, a Bon Voyage, the Flubbers, heart-tug plus laffs Follow Me, Boys. You could have switched identities and let Stewart do the Disneys and Fred have the doggy comedies Jim was in for Fox. Both surrendered  degrees of screen authority with these, Fred making last serious stand with The Apartment, Stewart swapping intense for easy-go variations on "Jimmy" (Flight Of The Phoenix one surprise exception from the mid-60's). I don't count Shenandoah as anything other than downer wolf in sheep's clothing, genial-Jim of a start beat down by third act of family slaughtered amidst bleak landscape of Universal's backlot.

Jim Seemed To Me More Unhinged When He Went Off On Guys in the 60's.

Dear Brigette is among the Fox-Stewart wretched. I watched for long standing curiosity and fact it played true HD on TCM. I remembered portions from ABC's network premiere  (11/19/67). We had sunspots that night, so Channel 8 for once came in crystal clear. Dear Brigitte is poison from a tree the 60's called "family entertainment," being would-be Disney but lacking Buena Vista's marketing panache. Stewart is a college professor, absent-minded like Disney's edition played by MacMurray, but not so benign. Jim throws tantrums like bent version of crack-ups he had in Anthony Mann westerns. As with Cagney in later years, Stewart sometimes gave it too much. It must have been shock in the 60's to see him breaking rock that was Dear Brigitte after one-after-other triumphs of the 50's. I spent young years thinking him a fuddy-duddy pop to Sandra Dee (Take Her, She's Mine) or wrangler-in-chief to brat kids in bad comedy that aped Disney. Seeing Rear Window on NBC came as revelation that Stewart after all had been a lead man with mettle, but it would take several years and further backlog to know his worth for what it was.

Needless Accordion Infliction Is Repeated Eight Years After Night Passage 

Dear Brigitte wilts also under weight of Unbearable Ed Wynn, narrating direct to us as he spills pipe ash on a hapless dog, that gag done to exhaustion through 100 minutes run time. Billy Mumy is Stewart's boy who has mathematical genius and writes love letters to Brigitte Bardot. That idea works for a middle portion that drags otherwise. Nothing of a Dear Brigitte sort should ever run past eighty-five minutes. Maybe conservative Jim felt we needed more films Mom/Dad could take children to see without embarrassment. Lots of his generation viewed screens as too muddied up. Were these comedies penance for Stewart having been in Anatomy Of A Murder? (his father advised friends not to go see "my son in that dirty movie") Pay-off to Dear Brigitte's title conceit is Bardot making third act cameo (extended) which authority says was her first work in a US film. Bardot heat had cooled or she probably wouldn't have shown up in a pic like this. For host of good reasons, Dear Brigitte lost money from $2.3 million spent. Disney at least had advantage in knowing that no comedy of his should cost half that much. That's how so many of even lame ones stayed in profit.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

More Street Reality From Fox

Call Northside 777 (1947) For Docu-Noir

How this was sold is focus here. 20th Fox had a true story basis and shouted that to skies. What happened in real life was a natural for movies, a reporter exonerating a wrong man convicted on bogus evidence years before. Had Chicago police been complicit in the frame? Fox chief Darryl Zanuck forbade exploration of that; said it was "Un-American." Director Henry Hathaway, among few who'd stand up to DFZ, dropped on-screen hints to suggest corruption in long-past law enforcement, even as skirts were clean among current administration. Civic bodies were touchy over this sort of thing; a Windy City boycott based on libel of officers was no risk to be taken by any producer, let alone one dependent on heavy bookings there.

As with prior noir, Fox seasoned with real location and adherence close as showmanly possible to facts of the case. Dogged investigation had gotten an innocent man free, but the real killer remained loose and would remain so. 20th planted press to effect that Call Northside 777 may nab the guilty party by dint of a viewer seeing the movie and coming forth with fresh evidence. It was a neat hook, Chicagoans able to play detective in addition to fun of a corking thriller. "Police and newspaper men ... think they have a pretty shrewd idea as to who the murderer is," said Fox-prepared columns, but did they really? To the picture's credit, they didn't tie up narrative with too neat a ribbon. The ending is hopeful, but not necessarily happy. What Call Northside 777 celebrated was reporter tenacity and devices new to investigation technique, these emphasized in the film, and even more so, in publicity for the film.

A shiniest new toy was the lie detector. You couldn't use one in court, but Dr. Leonardo Keeler, who appears on-camera operating his device, said it was "more than 99 percent accurate." Call Northside 777 was probably the best endorsement polygraphs ever had. You'd swear the thing was infallible from watching here. Keeler insisted on playing himself because "no actor could handle the complex machine." Kind of reminded me of sound experts that took over the pic industry during transition to talk. No one questioned their expertise either. Another miracle device was 40's equivalent of a FAX machine, used in concert with X100 blow-up of an already indistinct photo to free the innocent man. That last doesn't bear up to much scrutiny, but works as engine for third act suspense, an aspect of Call Northside 777 that had worried director Hathaway, as evidenced in contretemps he had with Zanuck over a proper ending.

Watchwords then, were "real" and "true." Call Northside 777 would celebrate integrity of modern journalists, this a  welcome departure from reporters of a Lee Tracy bent, an image scribes were ready to have done with. It paid to portray newspapers in positive light; they were, after all, the lifeline for movies before television became a promotional force. 20th had finally made urban thrillers pay, the way into wallets being "Filmed-From-Life" verisimilitude. Each investment to that account had gone into black: The House On 92nd Street, 13 Rue Madeleine, Kiss Of Death, and Boomerang. Call Northside 777 would rank second only to 92nd Street in terms of profit, even as 777 grossed highest of the lot (Northside had a higher negative cost). The semi-doc-group tended to do better than straight noir, which for Fox, became a losing proposition. Zanuck, in fact, issued a memo to effect that audiences were tired of darkish content and that crime themes, at least on the 20th lot, needed a rest.
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