Yuletide 2018

I know this is a departure from the subject of movies and the Golden Age of Hollywood, but as the Christmas Season rolls around once again, I don’t want it to go unobserved that 2018 marks the Bicentennial of the most familiar and beloved of all Christmas carols: “Silent Night”.

Or rather, strictly speaking, it’s the 200th anniversary of the carol’s original version, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”. It wasn’t to become “Silent Night” until 1859, when it was translated into English by Fr. John Freeman Young, an Episcopal priest in New York City. But as “Stille Nacht”, it was first performed at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 1818 by its lyricist, Fr. Joseph Mohr, and composer, Franz X. Gruber, accompanied by Herr Gruber on guitar. Rather like Christianity itself, “Silent Night” first came into the world in a humble, even obscure imperial backwater — in this case Oberndorf, Austria — then proceeded to be embraced around the world in a remarkably short time. The song’s sublime spiritual simplicity continues to speak for itself, as it has for fully two centuries.

And in another departure from writing on Classic Hollywood, I’m sharing once again a contribution of my own to the Yuletide Season. As most Cinedrome readers will probably know, writer Philip Van Doren Stern once wrote a little story he called “The Greatest Gift”. He worked on it from 1939 to 1943, then, when he felt it was ready, he found himself unable to interest anyone in publishing it.  So Stern had 200 copies printed in a little booklet and sent them out to family and friends as his Christmas card that year. In time, the story came to the attention of Hollywood, and eventually, after a few false starts here and there, director Frank Capra made it the basis for his 1946 picture It’s a Wonderful Life with James Stewart and Donna Reed.

Taking a leaf from Philip Van Doren Stern, and in keeping with the Spirit of the Season, I’m offering a little story of my own as a sort of Christmas card for my Cinedrome readers. Unlike “The Greatest Gift”, it has nothing to do with movies or Hollywood; it’s just a tale told to me by a wise and wonderful older person I once knew. It’s called “The Sensible Christmas Wish”, and you can read it by clicking here.

If you like the story, feel free to share it with friends and family. Please remember, though, that like everything else here at Cinedrome, it is under copyright, and all rights are reserved.

Happy Holidays!

Cinevent 50 — Day 4

The last day of Cinevent 50 began with Kitty (1945), starring Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland. Since I wrote the program notes for Kitty, I’m going to follow my practice of years past and reproduce those notes here. However, I should mention that my notes for Cinevent were adapted from my 2013 Cinedrome post on this, one of my favorite pictures. So you’ve got a choice: you can read on now, or if you want the full gamut of what I had to say back then, you can click here and skip the next thirteen paragraphs.

Paulette Goddard is one of the great also-rans of movie history. As she never tired of saying, she was the front-runner to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind – until some pert little nobody from England came along. Late in life, Goddard told how she was offered the role and threw a party to celebrate. Selznick came, she said, and so did the English actor Laurence Olivier, in town shooting Wuthering Heights for Sam Goldwyn. Olivier (again, according to Paulette) brought along his girlfriend Vivien Leigh, Selznick took one look at her, and that was that.

The story is nonsense, of course. David Selznick didn’t meet Leigh at Paulette’s house, and Paulette never had Scarlett nailed down enough to throw a party over it. But Paulette’s harmless little fable shows how that near-miss haunted her for the rest of her life — through her 1940s peak at Paramount (when she never quite made it into the top rank of Hollywood stars), and all the long years before her death at 79 in 1990, years during which GWTW’s fame grew even as her own dwindled.

There’s another oblique link to Gone With the Wind in Goddard’s career. As everybody knows, while the world waited breathlessly for the movie David Selznick would make of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Warner Bros. decided to cash in on this vogue for the Old South by dusting off a 1933 Broadway flop about another flirtatious and headstrong southern belle — and Jezebel swept to the screen a year ahead of GWTW.

Fast-forward to 1944, when another novel has readers breathless and every actress in Hollywood rubbing her hands. The book is Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber, about an ambitious village girl’s sexual exploits during the reign of Charles II of England. Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox had snatched up the movie rights to this racy, titillating bestseller — and the boys over at Paramount decided to steal a march on Zanuck the way Warners had on Selznick. The beneficiary of their ploy was Paulette Goddard.

The vehicle they chose was Rosamond Marshall’s novel Kitty, which had been published the year before Amber, but with nowhere near the same success. Born in 1902, Rosamond Marshall wrote some 16 novels altogether, but only two of them ever made it to the screen: The Bixby Girls (filmed in 1960 as All the Fine Young Cannibals with Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner) and Kitty.

Actually, not all of Kitty made it to the screen. Marshall’s novel was a pretty steamy bodice-ripper by 1940s standards, the tale of a 14-year-old London prostitute blithely sleeping her way up the social ladder in the days of King George III. Kitty (she doesn’t have a last name) gets caught stealing the shoes of the painter Thomas Gainsborough — and he, liking the look of her, invites her into his studio to pose. There, Kitty catches the eye of a ne’er-do-well visitor, Sir Hugh Marcy, who takes her home with him and introduces her to the pleasures of orgasmic sex. Sir Hugh and his gin-sodden aunt Lady Susan take Kitty under their wings, passing her off as the orphaned child of a dear friend and subjecting her to a crash course in proper speech and manners. Kitty blooms under their tutelage and her lovers multiply.

So much for the novel. Needless to say, between publication and the release of Paramount’s film in 1945, Rosamond Marshall’s story underwent a major overhaul at the hands of writers Karl Tunberg and Darrell Ware and director Mitchell Leisen. For starters, a prostitute as a heroine, let alone a 14-year-old one, was out of the question. So Kitty was advanced to somewhere beyond the age of consent — and relieved of the need to have anything to consent to.

More important, Tunberg and Ware (with perhaps the input of director Leisen) realized what Rosamond Marshall evidently did not: that next to Kitty herself, by far the book’s most interesting characters are the cad Sir Hugh and the drunkard Lady Susan. In the novel, Lady Susan is dead halfway through and Sir Hugh disappears with far too many pages left to read. In the screenplay, both are kept around, to far better effect.

Ware and Tunberg’s other solution to Kitty’s story problems — and its conflicts with the Production Code — was inspired: They expanded the scenes of Sir Hugh and Lady Susan schooling Kitty in ladylike deportment, thus changing Kitty’s plot from the rise of an adolescent hooker to an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, with Kitty (Paulette Goddard) as Eliza Doolittle, Sir Hugh Marcy (Ray Milland) as Henry Higgins, and Thomas Gainsborough (Cecil Kellaway) as Col. Pickering. Shaw’s Mrs. Higgins became Lady Susan, and the role was entrusted to that grand dowager of the British and Broadway stages, Constance Collier. (Shaw’s reaction to all this is unrecorded. He may have been amused – or he may never have even seen the picture. He almost certainly never read Marshall’s novel.)

Kitty is billed as “A Mitchell Leisen Production.” In the mid-’40s Leisen (pronounced “Leeson”) was Paramount’s arbiter of elegance, having begun his career designing sets and costumes for Cecil B. DeMille, the only Paramount director who outranked him in prestige. Leisen has taken a beating from auteurists in recent decades, mainly because Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges both claimed to have turned director out of dissatisfaction with Leisen’s treatment of their scripts. But an unbiased look at the pictures Leisen made of Sturges’s screenplays for Easy Living (1937) and Remember the Night (’40), or Wilder’s (and Charles Brackett’s) for Midnight (’39) and Hold Back the Dawn (’41), makes them sound like a couple of whining prima donnas. We should all be grateful that Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges moved into directing their own stuff, but they had no grounds whatever to complain about Mitch Leisen.

David Chierichetti’s 1995 book Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director does much to correct this injustice to Leisen, but its information on Kitty is sketchy and unreliable — when it’s not downright false. Chierichetti says it’s set in “Restoration Era England” when it takes place 125 years later. Leisen himself, interviewed, says: “I spent two years researching Gainsborough and the way he painted. We determined that the picture took place in 1659, and there’s nothing in the picture that was painted by him after that year.” Wrong again. Gainsborough wasn’t even born until 1727, and an opening title card explicitly sets the story in 1783. Clearly, Leisen (who died in 1972) had not seen the picture recently when he discussed it with Chierichetti, nor had Chierichetti when he wrote about it. And Leisen never spent two years in research. Kitty was ready for release by the end of 1944 but was held up a full year by Paramount’s backlog of product; two years of research would have had Leisen beginning in 1942, a year before the novel was published.

But there is one point on which Chierichetti is absolutely right: Kitty “was precisely the kind of picture Leisen could do better than anybody else, and its mixture of mannered comedy and gutsy drama suited him perfectly.” The picture is a sumptuous feast, evoking 18th century London as sharply as an engraving by William Hogarth. It’s a pity the picture couldn’t have been made in Technicolor — thus evoking Gainsborough rather than Hogarth — but Paramount was notoriously cheap on that score. Even as it stands, Kitty richly deserved its Oscar nomination for art direction — for Hans Dreier and Walter Tyler; the production design was by Raoul Pene Du Bois. (Kitty lost to Fox’s Anna and the King of Siam.)

Over and above its gorgeous look and elegent style, Kitty gave Paulette Goddard the opportunity of a lifetime, and she came through with the performance of her career. Always a conscientious actress rather than an inspired one, Goddard worked hard on her Cockney accent, coached by Phyllis Loughton and Connie Emerald (mother of Ida Lupino), and, as the new-and-improved Kitty, by Constance Collier, who tutored Goddard/Kitty as much off screen as Lady Susan did on. There’s not a false note in Goddard’s performance, nor in any of the rest of the cast, which was surely one of the largest and best either she or Leisen ever worked with: Milland (against-all-odds charming as Sir Hugh, a more detestable rotter than Henry Higgins ever was), Collier, Kellaway, Patric Knowles (as Kitty’s version of Freddy Eynsford-Hill), Dennis Hoey (as Kitty’s first husband), Reginald Owen (as her second), and the ever-popular Eric Blore as Sir Hugh and Lady Susan’s querulous manservant Dobson. (Blore has one of the best lines in the picture – but I won’t spoil it.)

After lunch we got the last three chapters of The Masked Marvel, and we finally learned who the Masked Marvel really was (as if it mattered; I never could keep the candidates straight — I can’t even remember which one wound up dying in that L.A. beanfield).

Then came The King of Wild Horses (1924), which showcased one of those stars that almost every film buff has heard of, but (I’ll bet) very few have ever seen: Rex the Wonder Horse. Discovered God knows where by producer Hal Roach, he had a pretty good career for a while — for a horse, anyhow, especially a horse who wasn’t partnered with some human cowboy star. This particular picture, Rex’s debut, had him as the alpha male in a herd of wild horses, sought by a cowboy (Léon Bary) who wants to catch and tame him, while the cowpoke’s rancher boss (Sidney De Gray) tries to learn who keeps rustling his stock. The two plotlines eventually converge, naturally, and work themselves out pretty well. Rex was the main attraction, and there’s no denying he had star quality, clearly intelligent and seemingly game for almost anything; it’s easy to understand how he came to rival, in his day, the popularity of Rin Tin Tin. Another point of interest was the presence in the cast of Charley Chase in a straight dramatic role (and, to avoid misleading audiences, billed as Charles Parrott, his real name).

Beauty for Sale (1933) was an energetic pre-Code from MGM and director Richard Boleslawski, from a novel by paleo-romance novelist Faith Baldwin. Madge Evans played a working girl at an upscale beauty salon catering to wealthy women with nothing better to do than sit around yakking at each other with mud on their faces. Various sexual shenanigans ensue: Evans wanders into an affair with the husband (Otto Kruger) of one of her more empty-headed clients (Alice Brady); her co-worker and best friend (Una Merkel) drains a sugar daddy (Charley Grapewin) for every dime she can get; another co-worker (Florine McKenney) carries on a forbidden-fruit romance with the pampered son (Phillips Holmes) of the salon’s owner (Hedda Hopper) and winds up pregnant.

Beauty for Sale was nicely done, and the print was handsome, but it was overshadowed by the picture that followed it, which in its turn closed out the weekend with one last highlight. This was Dreamboat (1952), a marvelous spoof of Hollywood, television, and academia that probably represents the pinnacle of writer/director Claude Binyon’s career.

No doubt that name sounds vaguely familiar. Binyon (1905-78) was a journeyman writer whose career, if it never quite scaled the heights of a Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder, was still nothing to sneeze at. Starting out as a journalist, he worked at Variety for several years in the late ’20s and early ’30s, where some say he was responsible for the famous headlines WALL STREET LAYS AN EGG and STIX NIX HICK PIX. True credit on those is understandably disputed; whatever the case, by 1932 he had transitioned from writing about movies to writing for them. Over the years his scripts included Sing, You Sinners (1938); Holiday Inn (’42); This Is the Army (’43); Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (’58); North to Alaska (’60) — and, it must be said, Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick (’52) and the 1960 all-star roadshow megabomb Pepe

Binyon occasionally directed his own scripts, and with Dreamboat he was at the top of both games. Clifton Webb played Thornton Sayre, a stuffy, acerbic college professor whose students call him “Old Ironheart” behind his back. The advent of television has uncovered a secret long buried in his past: He used to be a silent-screen heartthrob known as Bruce Blair (imagine a combination of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert), and now those obsolete relics of a bygone day are turning up on TV, hosted by his former co-star Gloria Marlowe (Ginger Rogers). The movies have created a sensation, upsetting the stuffy trustees of his college, so he strikes out for New York to get an injunction to stop this invasion of his privacy, taking along his daughter Carol (Anne Francis), who is well on her way to becoming the same kind of stick-in-the-mud killjoy that he is. While Gloria and her TV producer (Fred Clark) try to charm Prof. Sayre out of his dudgeon, Carol is squired around town by the producer’s assistant (Jeffrey Hunter). In the process, father learns that reversing the wheels of showbiz is easier said than done, while daughter learns there’s more to having a good time than working on a thesis to “challenge the existence of Homer as an individual.” Dreamboat was a witty delight every inch of the way, poking fun at show business and academia with both barrels and scoring a bullseye every time. It was also a testament to 20th Century Fox’s ongoing ingenuity in finding vehicles to showcase the unorthodox but inimitable talents of Clifton Webb. Those of use who stayed through to the end of the weekend were well-rewarded for our loyalty.

Now I’d like to say a few words about Anne Francis. As Dreamboat romps across the screen, her Carol Sayre transforms from a buzzkill bookworm who looks about five days past puberty into something like the Anne Francis we all remember. She had a long and worthy career, with 169 credits between 1947 and 2004; she was always a welcome presence, and I’d venture to guess everyone who ever saw her in a movie or on TV remembered her fondly. Yet she never quite became a real star; I doubt if she ever got her name above a title, and she got top billing only in her one-season TV series Honey West. I wonder why?

There’s a line in John Fowles’s novel The Magus that has always stayed with me. The title character, Maurice Conchis, a mysterious middle-aged semi-recluse living on the (fictitious) Greek island of Phraxos, is speaking to the narrator, burnt-out teacher Nicholas Urfe, about Lily, the young woman who lives with Conchis. “Lily is beautiful, is she not? In fact, she is dangerously close to being perfect, and perfectly beautiful women are always boring.” (In the disastrous 1968 movie, Lily was played by Candice Bergen. ‘Nuff said.)

Maybe that’s what held Anne Francis back. Not that she was ever boring — far from it — but she was awfully close to being perfectly beautiful. All of the screen’s greatest beauties, it seems, had some flaw: their eyes were too large, or too small, or too far apart, or they had only one good side, or they were nothing without a camera. Anne Francis had nothing like that. There was that little mole near the right corner of her mouth, but does that really count as a flaw? Personally, I think it only put her that much closer to perfection. No wonder her role in Funny Girl (1968) was slashed to practically nothing; Barbra Streisand didn’t need that kind of competition. And no wonder one of her best (and best remembered) performances was on The Twilight Zone, as a department store mannequin allowed to come to life for a month and walk among the mortals.

Well, that’s one of the things I like about Cinevent. Along with the reunions with longtime and like-minded friends, the dealers’ room, the screenings, there are reflections like that that spring to mind. And you never know what’s going to bring one on. On to Memorial Day 2019!

Cinevent 50 – Day 3 (Part 2)

Apologies for the delay, Cinedrome readers. I’ve been on vacation, but now I’m back and ready to resume my recap of this year’s Cinevent.

After The War of the Worlds on Saturday afternoon, Leonard Maltin introduced The Meanest Man in the World (1943) with Jack Benny. Sharing above-the-title billing with him was the ever-fetching Priscilla Lane, but as anyone who remembers Benny’s radio or TV shows will know, his real co-star was Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (here billed only by his nom de radio).

Benny played Richard Clarke, a tender-hearted small-town lawyer who moves to New York, leaving sweetheart Janie (Lane) back home while he makes his fortune — which his manservant Shufro (Anderson) persuades him he’ll never do until he stops being such a darn nice guy. So he decides to become a first-class heel — but, as this poster suggests, that only puts him in danger of losing his girlfriend.

The two men may have sported different names in the movie, but it was business as usual for Jack Benny and Rochester, with Rochester/Shufro getting most of the funny lines and staying always one step ahead of his boss. Directed by Sidney Lanfield (who always knew how to stay out of the way), the movie clocked in at only 57 minutes, which made it play more or less like an hour-long episode of The Jack Benny Program, and a pretty funny one at that. An unexpected surprise was Anne Revere as Benny’s secretary. I’ve been more accustomed to see her in dead-serious roles as somebody’s dogged no-nonsense mother (Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette, Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, Gregory Peck in Gentleman’s Agreement, Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun), but here she was a wisecracking office assistant (she reminded me of Ann B. Davis’s Schultzy on the old Bob Cummings Show), and she was hilarious. I never knew she had it in her.

Just before the dinner break came the third and final tribute to one of Cinevent’s founders. This time it was for John Baker, and the program consisted of 15 jazz soundies of the type Mr. Baker once so diligently collected. “Soundies”, for those who don’t know, were two-to-three minute filmed musical performances — forerunners, if you will, of music videos — that were shot on 16mm and played in specially designed jukeboxes. Their heyday wasn’t long, but there were many of them made while the fad lasted. Mr. Baker himself accumulated thousands of them, eventually selling his collection to the University of Kansas and the American Jazz Museum (thus funding his retirement to Florida). I don’t know whether any of the soundies shown at Cinevent were actually from his former collection, but they were the sort of things he would certainly have had, and the artists ranged from the near-forgotten (Apos & Estrellita, Dewey Brown, The Delta Rhythm Boys) to the full-out-legendary (Cab Calloway, Noble Sissle, Nat “King” Cole, Fats Waller, Count Basie).

After dinner it was The Sea Spoilers (1936), one of the B-pictures John Wayne made at Universal in an effort to break out of the horse-opera ghetto he was mired in at Republic and for fly-by-night producer Paul Malvern. Two years ago Cinevent presented probably the best of these, California Straight Ahead, but all of them were pretty good. Sea Spoilers had the Duke as a U.S. Coast Guard officer on the trail of seal poachers led by Russell Hicks, with his sweetheart Nan Gray caught in the crossfire.

Then came Richard Talmadge in the silent The Speed King (1923), a variation on The Prisoner of Zenda that had him as an American motorcycle racer dragooned into impersonating a lookalike king in one of those tiny kingdoms where stories like this always take place. Talmadge (no relation to sisters Norma, Constance and Natalie — in fact, his given name was Sylvester Metz) was an appealing sort who had a brief run as an actor but a long one as stuntman, stunt coordinator, second unit director and other miscellaneous crew functions. Henry Hathaway employed him often, from The Trail of the Lonesome Pine to How the West Was Won; he can be seen (if you know where to look) doubling for Lionel Barrymore in his more strenuous scenes in Hathaway’s masterpiece Down to the Sea in Ships. (And say, Cinevent folks, how about showing that one one of these years?)

Next was, for many of those in attendance, the highlight of the whole weekend: 1946’s Three Little Girls in Blue. (Personally, I’d put it neck-and-neck with The War of the Worlds, but that could just be me.) As I’ve mentioned before, this was 20th Century Fox’s second remake of their own Three Blind Mice from 1938 (the first remake, in 1941, was the Betty Grable vehicle Moon Over Miami), about three sisters living high on a modest inheritance, hoping to land rich husbands before the money runs out. It’s a movie of immense charm and constant pleasures that deserves to be better known.

The print shown this year was the same one Cinevent screened in 1998; genuine IB Technicolor — as such, guaranteed never to fade — and in the same impeccable physical condition as 20 years ago, with hardly a splice, line, or scratch from first frame to last.

This is important to note because the DVD available from the 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives collection is distinctly inferior. Fox turned out the best specimens of Technicolor in the 1940s, but you wouldn’t always know it from the quality of their DVD releases. They’ve been very uneven, and Three Little Girls, alas, is way at the low end of the scale. I mentioned a while back that this is probably the best Fox musical that didn’t involve Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Shirley Temple or Rodgers and Hammerstein, and it’s probably no coincidence that those names are on the best examples of Fox Tech on DVD (Moon Over Miami; Hello, Frisco, Hello; The Little Princess; State Fair). It’s a shame Three Little Girls in Blue didn’t get similar care, because the color really is lovely — and, in Vera-Ellen’s fantasy dance to “You Make Me Feel So Young”, pretty striking. And Celeste Holm’s red dress as she sings “Always a Lady” is enough to knock your eyes out. If you were lucky enough to see it this year (or 20 years ago) at Cinevent. Kudos and thanks to the unidentified source of that print. (And by the way, the lobby card reproduced here is a classic example of false advertising. You’d never guess, would you, that the picture takes place in 1902?)

Finally, it pains me to say this, but I had to miss the last screening of Day 3, 1935’s Murder by Television with Bela Lugosi and June Collyer. The spirit was willing, but the start time was 12:20 a.m. Sunday morning, and I had to call it a day. I’ll just have to catch up with that intriguing curiosity some other day.

*                         *                         *

Now I want to double back to that afternoon conversation between Scott Eyman and Leonard Maltin. I wasn’t able to record the whole hour’s talk (I trust somebody did), but I did catch a few interesting remarks from these articulate gentlemen. First, moderator Caroline Breder-Watts asked Leonard what first got him hooked on movies; “What was it that caused that spark for you, for film?”

L.M.: I think it was the fact that when I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, television was a living museum of movies. And being a Baby Boomer, I became a TV addict, and at that time — I’m not telling you guys anything you don’t know; if there were younger people here I’d have to explain it a little more fully — but I watched Laurel and Hardy every day, every day of my life growing up. The Little Rascals, every day. Walt Disney every week. At one golden period, The Mickey Mouse Club every afternoon. All of these things left a deep, deep impression on me, and they’re still the things I care about most today. So I think it all began there.

C.B.-W.: Were those experiences you shared with your parents, with your family, or was that something that was more solitary for you?

L.M.: You know, I honestly don’t remember. We only had one TV I think at that time. Imagine the deprivation! So I guess we must have watched a lot of it. But a lot of it was early morning, late afternoon after school, you know, Saturday morning, all of that. So those were “kid time”.

C.B.-W.: I think there is something to be mourned in that we don’t have that communal experience at home anymore with all our devices and all our tablets and all of our things. I was in the same situation when I was a kid, I watched kind of what my parents watched — but that was a good thing, ’cause they watched really good things. And they watched old movies, and that’s where I got my spark from. And that’s not an experience we all have any more. There’s channels for children, there’s all kind of different distractions, that sort of thing.

L.M.: There’s fragmentation, and narrow-casting, too. When I was growing up you didn’t have to go to Turner Classic Movies, the sole channel on the dial — “dial”! — you didn’t have to go someplace to see old movies. You just had to switch the channel, because this channel would be showing a W.C. Fields movie, and this one might be showing a Bogart movie, and this one might be showing Charlie Chan, or something like that. They were everywhere. They were unavoidable, I guess is what I’m saying, it was unavoidable to see old movies at that time.

C.B.-W.: Scott, I know this convention, this festival in particular had a big part of your upbringing, didn’t it?

S.E.: Yeah, unlike Leonard — let’s see, you grew up in Teaneck [New Jersey], so you had WOR, and you had the Million Dollar Movie, and you had all these New York stations that were churning films all the time. I grew up in Cleveland — please, no hatred [laughter] — and the only thing we had was the Paramount package from the 1930s. So I saw W.C. Fields and a few other things, but there wasn’t a lot there. I didn’t get that immersion that you did. What did it for me was two movies, actually. Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy in 1962 or ’63; I think it was ’63 when I saw it, so I would have been 11. I’d seen some, like, “funny man” TV series and clips, Flicker Flashback, things like that on television, and this silent thing interested me. So I conned my grandmother into taking me to see Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy, which was in a theater which was in what is euphemistically referred to in that area as a “changing neighborhood”. She wouldn’t go in, because God only knows what would happen if she went in and had to sit in a dark theater in a changing neighborhood. So she dropped me off, and she stayed in the car for two hours while I was inside the theater, so in case I came out I wouldn’t be attacked and murdered in the 20 feet between the doors and the car. I went and saw Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy, and that intrigued me sociologically. That’s not a word I would have applied at the age of 11 or 12, but you know, the clothes, the cars, the buildings, it was so different than what I saw around me. Also, of course, the gags, the structure, how he worked comedically, as opposed to the people I was seeing on television like Jack Benny. It was a different vibe, it was visual as opposed to verbal.

And then the second one that got me — you’ll laugh — was The Sons of Katie Elder about a year later, about ’64, which I went in to see, it was on a double bill with The Family Jewels at the Center Mayfield Theatre. Do you guys remember the theater where you saw movies? I can remember exactly which theater I saw every movie I’ve ever seen at.

L.M.: Me too, and I wonder if today’s generation can possibly have that same feeling about having seen a movie in Multiplex 4.

S.E.: No, no. But I went in to see Sons of Katie Elder and it was crowded so I had to sit way down in front, like four or five rows from the front row. I usually sat in the middle, but here I was stuck in the front of the theater looking up like this, and I suddenly noticed the grain in the film. And the grain was alive, and the film was alive. On one hand I was watching the story and the acting — it’s a good movie — but I was also watching the film itself as it sped through the projector. And I had this interesting sensation of watching a living organism unfold; it was like microphotography in a National Geographic special. So it was a two-part thing. The Harold Lloyd thing gave me a sense of film as a window into the past, and at this point I wanted to be an archaeologist, and The Sons of Katie Elder gave me a sense of film as a living organism that is constructed, and architected, and planned. Those two things combined in this pincer movement for me.

*          *          *

[Later, Ms. Breder-Watts asked how the love of watching movies led them to transition into writing about them]:

L.M.: Actually, I started writing letters, that’s where it began. I wrote fan letters; I was big on that. I got some wonderful, wonderful answers. My first ambition had been to be a cartoonist, and I wrote to some of my heroes. I wanted to be a cartoonist and I sent some of my samples to Charles Schulz, who wrote back the kindest, most encouraging letter, very supportive. A personal letter, not a form letter, just a wonderful gesture on his part. And he included in the package an original signed daily Peanuts strip. Unsolicited. P.S., 30 years later I got hired by United Media, his syndicator, to interview him in his studio in Santa Rosa, Calif., for a video that was going to accompany a traveling museum tour. So as they’re getting the cameras set I told him that story. He jumped out of his seat, he says, “We gotta get you something newer!” He went over to one of his work tables and sifted through his Sunday pages, found a more recent original Sunday India ink page, and signed it this time for Alice [Mrs. Maltin] and me, and signed it “Sparky”, which was his nickname with his friends. So sometimes luck and timing and coincidence play a role in all of this.

C.B.-W.: And it’s probably a really good letter, right?

L.M.: I guess I wrote pretty good letters. I’ve seen a few and they embarrass me now. Like the time I wrote to [film historian] William K. Everson, having just recently met him, telling him I thought Metropolis was boring. I’m not reprinting that anywhere.

*          *          *

[Scott spoke about the principles that motivated him when he embarked on his own writing career…]:

S.E.: I knew what I didn’t want to do more than I did what I wanted to do. I wanted to start writing and interviewing people; I think Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By was a huge influence on me — a whole generation of historians, actually — and I knew what I didn’t want to do, because I was starting to read seriously, read books about writers, read books about artists, and all these other things. And then I’d read books about movie people and they were on such a superficial, trashy level. And I didn’t see any reason why a book about a movie director or an actor should be written on such a mediocre level when you wouldn’t think of writing a book about an author like that. So I was kind of coming around to the idea of writing serious books about people that usually weren’t treated seriously. The first person I interviewed outside of Cleveland — I mean, Andy McLaglen came through to push a movie, or Earl Holliman would come through to push a movie, so I would talk to them — but the first person I interviewed in Los Angeles was John Wayne, and it’s been downhill ever since. I mean, if that’s your first out of the box when you’re 21 years old, why should you be worried about talking to anybody else on the face of the earth, including the Pope?

[…and about approaching future projects as he ages]:

Who knows? At some point you pitch face-forward. Now, of course David McCullough’s 85 years old and he’s still working. That’s great, he’s lucky, he’s got good genes. But you’re not guaranteed that. When I was 35 or even 40, somebody would suggest something, I’d say, “That sounds like fun, I’ve never read that book. Sure, I’ll do it.” Now, I circle and circle and circle, is this worth those years of my life I have remaining, three or four years that I have remaining? Is this guy, is this woman worth the time? It’s an entirely different transaction now than it was.

L.M.: As a reader, I’m going to interject to say “Yes.” Because Scott’s book on John Wayne is the best book on John Wayne, just as his book on Cecil B. DeMille is the definitive book on Cecil B. DeMille. I’m compulsive, but I’ve been tempted to actually discard some of my other books because they’re taking up shelf space.

C.B.-W.: That’s a great compliment.

L.M.: Well, I mean it to be a great compliment, but it’s also the truth. I’m too anal, I can’t get rid of the other books, but if I could tame my instincts I would just say, “These are useless now ’cause Scott’s done the ultimate job.”

C.B.-W.: Scott, that’s funny that you mention David McCullough because I remember hearing an interview with him on NPR where he said the major reason he wrote the book on Harry Truman was because he had been writing a book, or planning to write a book, on Pablo Picasso, and he was such a dreadful human being he couldn’t imagine spending time writing about a dreadful human being. So he said, “I’m gonna write about somebody I like, somebody that’s a nice guy.” So that obviously figures into you as well.

L.M.: You know that old saying, “No man is a hero to his valet.” I’ve heard biographers say that, in a different context, that when they get to really know their subject well, they become disillusioned. I guess that’s just part of the game.

S.E.: Sometimes, sometimes not. People ask me, “What was the book you loved writing the most?” and I always tell them the Lubitsch book, my book on Lubitsch [Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise]. Because he was such a fully actualized person, what a shrink would call actualized. He was exactly the person he wanted to be, and he made exactly the films he wanted to make. Nobody got in his way, and nothing got in his way, until his heart broke down. But he was very — he loved being him. And the most difficult book, conversely, was John Ford [Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford]. Because it was like being locked in a telephone booth with twelve Eugene O’Neill characters, and they’re all mean, and they’re all snarling at each other, and they’re all stinking drunk. I had to keep watching the movies to remind myself why I was writing the book. You get over any kind of romantic ideal that talent cares who it happens to. Talent doesn’t care who it happens to. Some people are great stewards of their talent and other people spend it like they’re drunken sailors. Ford was not a particularly pleasant human being, but he was a stupendous artist, a stupendous American artist, and I had to keep watching the movies to remind myself why I was doing the book.

So this is a long, involved way to answer your question. No, I don’t have to love my subject. But I have to respect them as artists. That’s mandatory. That’s mandatory. Now there are people that will spend fifteen years writing a two-volume biography of Josef Goebbels. I am not one of those people. I might read those books, but I have zero interest in spending time with a human beast. There has to be something there to validate that human being in my eyes. It can be their life, it can be their work — hopefully it’s both, but it has to be something.

*          *          *

That’s as much as I was able to record of this productive and stimulating conversation. I wish there was more, but I think that will give you an idea of what a good time was had by all that afternoon. I also remember that in a Q&A with the audience in the second half of the session, someone asked if there were any highly-regarded films that the two men consider overrated, and that Leonard Maltin cited A Place in the Sun (1951) as one that he doesn’t think has aged well. Sorry, I don’t recall which movie(s) Scott Eyman may have mentioned. If anyone reading this happens to have been there in the Cinevent screening room that day, I welcome your memories and reflections in the comments. In the meantime, I’ll move on to the fourth and last day of the weekend.

To be concluded…

Cinevent 50 — Day 3 (Part 1)

Saturday morning is always cartoon time at Cinevent. This year, in deference to the presence of Leonard Maltin, animation curator Stewart McKissick selected the program based on comments in Maltin’s seminal book Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. As Maltin himself said in the program notes, there were “no maverick opinions here”, and indeed, it was a morning of tried-and-true excellence (most of this year’s roster is not available on YouTube, so you’ll have to take my word for it). The morning included (among others) Max Fleischer’s Dizzy Dishes (1930), a cartoon cabaret that included the first appearance of Betty Boop when she was a leggy, voluptuous sexpot from the neck down and a sort-of puppy dog from the neck up; Porky Pig’s Feat, a 1943 black-and-white Looney Tune directed by Frank Tashlin, with Porky and Daffy locked in their hotel room until they can pay the bill; Tortoise Wins by a Hare (also 1943), with Bugs Bunny as Aesop’s perennial loser; and Hockey Homicide (1945), one of Walt Disney’s funniest “sports Goofy” shorts. The whole array culminated with two MGM shorts from Tex Avery in his prime: King Size Canary (1947), with a bird, a cat and a mouse constantly one-upping each other by guzzling “Jumbo-Gro” plant food and morphing into monstrous versions of themselves; and Little Rural Riding Hood (’49), another of Avery’s panting, libidinous variations on the famous fairy tale — not quite as woo-hoo!! sexy as Red Hot Riding Hood (’43), maybe, but just as funny.

After the cartoons — and Chapters 7 to 9 of The Masked Marvel — the first feature of the day was The Eyes of Julia Deep (1918), one of the few surviving films of Mary Miles Minter. Over 80 percent of the 54 pictures she made between 1912 and 1923 are considered lost — which, in a way, is emblematic of the cloud this woman lived under for pretty much her whole life. I dealt with poor Mary in some detail in this post; click over to it if you want the sad particulars. For now, suffice it to say that she never really wanted to be an actress, and she appears to have had precious few happy days during her long life (she died at 82 in 1984).

Like the photo reproduced here, The Eyes of Julia Deep gives us an inkling of why, for a while, Mary Miles Minter was considered a credible heiress apparent to Mary Pickford. She plays Julia Deep, a customer service clerk in a department store whose cheerful ways make friends for her wherever she goes. Living in the same boarding house with her is young Terry Hartridge (Allan Forrest), whose reckless lifestyle is fast burning through the fortune he inherited from his wealthy father. The two are not acquainted except by sight as they pass in the hall, but while he’s out frittering away his money on gambling and gold-digging women, Julia, with the landlady’s approval, finds escape from her humdrum shopgirl’s world among the books in his huge library. One night she falls asleep over a book and is still there when Terry comes home. He’s broke, depressed and suicidal; Julia, who’s been cowering in the shadows hoping to be able to sneak out unobserved, sees the pistol in his hand and impulsively pleads with him not to go through with it. From that, a friendship develops, with Julia taking charge of Terry’s finances and helping him straighten out his life. And friendship ripens into romance — until Terry’s irresponsible past comes back to bite them both in the heart. The Eyes of Julia Deep seesaws almost recklessly between comedy and drama, but director Lloyd Ingraham finesses the changing tone rather nicely. And there’s no getting around the fact that Mary Miles Minter really had something. She was never a serious rival to Mary Pickford — and wouldn’t have been, even without the bad luck, scandal and psychological stresses that plagued her. But she definitely had something.

 

After the lunch break came a conversation in the screening room between Scott Eyman and Leonard Maltin. This picture shows (from left) moderator Caroline Breder-Watts, Scott, and Leonard. At the prompting of Ms. Breder-Watts, they spoke about what drew them to movies in the first place, and how they got into writing about them. I took scattered video of the session, and I’ll be posting separately on what they had to say. For now I’ll just say that it was a lively and diverting hour; Scott Eyman and Leonard Maltin, individually, are each excellent and stimulating company; together, they’re pretty tough to beat.

 

From there it was back to the movies, and the next one we saw would have been a highlight of the weekend for me, even if the presentation had been less spectacular than it was. The picture was George Pal’s The War of the Worlds (1953), and before I get into why it was such a particular highlight for me, let me say that the print we saw that afternoon was absolutely flawless — unblemished from first frame to last, with brilliant color that did full justice to George Barnes’s rich Technicolor photography (Barnes, an Oscar winner for 1940’s Rebecca, unfortunately did not live to see this last and best example of his art; he died in May 1953, three months before it was released).

And now my personal War of the Worlds story. It’s a story I recounted in the Cinevent 50th Anniversary commemorative book because it relates to my first visit to Cinevent in 1998.

The War of the Worlds, as it happens, is the subject of one of my earliest and most vivid memories of moviegoing. In December 1953, when I was five, my 23-year-old Uncle Conrad took me and two cousins to see the picture at the Enean Theatre in Pittsburg, Calif. I believe I sat through the first 15 minutes in relative aplomb, but when the lid popped off the top of the mysterious meteor and that weird metallic cobra head emerged, emitting a strange pulsing rattling noise, I felt the first stirrings of unease. And when Paul Birch, Jack Kruschen and Bill Phipps approached waving their sugar-sack white flag, only to be blasted to kingdom come, I became truly alarmed. Still, I held it together manfully (if I can use that word for my five-year-old self) through the first attack by the Martians, even when their sweeping heat ray hit the audience right between the eyes and thousands of soldiers, tanks and artillery were vaporized right before my eyes. To be sure, just as unease had given way to alarm, alarm now gave way to terror, but I was hanging on. Just barely.

And then I absolutely fell apart. It happened as Gene Barry and Ann Robinson were trying to dig their way out of that abandoned farmhouse with a Martian machine hovering outside. First, the sight of that alien periscope slithering down through the broken roof had me pretty close to panic. And when that Martian hand with its three suction-cupped fingers reached out and grabbed Ann Robinson by the shoulder, I lost it completely. I screamed, cried, few into hysterics, wailed at the top of my tiny lungs that I didn’t want to see it anymore. Uncle Conrad was torn, unsure how to handle this sudden outburst. Finally — and I honestly can’t say I blame him — his desire not to miss any of the movie won out, and he threw his windbreaker over my head, where I cowered for the rest of the movie. I sat there helplessly listening to Gene Garvin and Harry Lindgren’s groundbreaking sound effects, whimpering that I didn’t want to hear it either; whether Conrad and my cousins didn’t hear me, or whether they just ignored me, I never knew. Only at the end, as the Martian machines began crashing, did they coax me out from under Conrad’s jacket (“It’s okay, Jimmy, they’re dead now!”), so I did see that same Martian arm creep out on the open hatch and turn green in death.

In the short term, Conrad caught holy hell from the rest of the family for subjecting me to this shattering trauma. But I eventually recovered (to be honest, it took a couple of years), and once I got a firm grasp of the it’s-only-a-movie concept, I couldn’t wait to see it again. It became a staple of Saturday kiddie matinees in my childhood, and I probably saw it three or four more times by the time I was twelve.

Fade out, fade in. It’s 1998, 45 years have passed, and I’m attending Cinevent in Columbus for the first time. In the downstairs lobby, just outside the dealers’ room, I saw none other than Ann Robinson herself, standing at a card table piled high with two stacks of photos — one of a black-and-white glamour shot of her from her days as a Paramount contract player, the other a production still of the Martian periscope looking over her shoulder, just before she turns around and sees it. I found Conrad in the dealers’ room, brought him out, and we introduced ourselves. Conrad took a picture of Ms. Robinson and me (it’s around here somewhere, but damned if I can find it). I told her the story of seeing The War of the Worlds in 1953 — and here’s the thing: She didn’t bat an eye. That’s when it finally dawned on me that I probably wasn’t the only five-year-old boy in 1953 who sat through that movie with his uncle’s coat over his head.

 

I may have lost track of the photo Conrad took of us, but I still have the shot of Ms. Robinson with the Martian periscope; it has an honored place in my collection. The inscription, in case you can’t quite make it out, reads: “Jim, ♥♥ Is that you? Ann Robinson”.

And on that note of personal reminiscence, I’ll close this review of the first part of Day 3. There was more to come.

 

 

To be continued…

Cinevent 50 – Day 2

Day 2 of Cinevent began bright and early with what was probably the most…the most…well, just about the oddest movie of the whole weekend: Night in Paradise (1946). Produced by Walter Wanger for Universal, it was based on George S. Hellman’s novel Peacock’s Feather, and Wanger had been trying to get it produced ever since snapping up the film rights shortly after the book was published in 1931. For a while, according to Richard Barrios’s program notes, he planned to star Ann Harding and Charles Boyer, and to make it the first feature in three-strip Technicolor. For one reason or another, he lost the services of Ann Harding, which — for the time being — sank the whole project (and instead, Becky Sharp became the first full-Technicolor feature in 1935; Wanger ventured into Tech the following year when he produced The Trail of the Lonesome Pine at Paramount).

Wanger got the project rolling again during a stint at Universal (Wanger was incredibly peripatetic, working at studios all over Hollywood, plus his own Walter Wanger Productions). He got the green light after scoring a box-office bullseye with Arabian Nights (1942), an installment in the studio’s Maria Montez/Jon Hall “King and Queen of Technicolor” series of campy adventures. And so it was that Wanger’s long-cherished film of Peacock’s Feather, now titled Night in Paradise, finally saw the light of a projector lamp in 1946.

In place of Montez and Hall, Wanger cast Merle Oberon (left above) and Montez’s frequent co-star Turhan Bey (below). Casting Oberon was definitely a step up from Maria Montez. Turhan Bey was more like a step across. Born Turhan Sahultavy in Vienna to a Turkish Muslim father and a Czechoslovakian Jewish mother, he and his divorced mom fled Austria when Hitler annexed the country, and they wound up in Los Angeles in 1940, when Turhan was 18. When so many of Hollywood’s leading men marched off to World War II, Bey was one of the stay-at-homes who benefited from the manpower shortage. He was a handsome young devil and really not a bad actor, but he somehow managed to be both exotic and bland at the same time. He had the kind of foreign accent that came of speaking English too precisely, and the blandness made him unthreatening; it was a combination that stood him in good stead for the duration of the war.

The Night in Paradise lobby card above may make it look like one of those Arabian Nights fantasias that flourished on the coattails of 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad, but the setting was Ancient Greece, not Arabia. It takes place at the court of the money-hungry King Croesus of Lydia (Thomas Gomez), who has jilted the sorceress Atossa (Gale Sondergaard) in order to marry wealthy Princess Delarai of Persia (Oberon). Turhan Bey plays Croesus’s counselor Aesop — yes, that Aesop, the guy with all the fables. Aesop is old, ugly, lame and hunchbacked, but one look at the newly arrived Delarai and he’s instantly smitten. So he decides to visit the princess by night. But here’s the catch: Aesop is in disguise. The ugliness and the hump on his back are a put-on, adopted by him on the theory that no king would look for wise counsel from a handsome young man. It’s the handsome young Aesop who comes to Delarai for the night in paradise that gives the movie its title. (Rumor has it that Turhan and Merle’s love scenes continued off the set, despite her being married and his being involved with Lana Turner. Well, just look at these two; can you blame either one of them?) Meanwhile, the jealous Atossa refuses to take being dumped lying down, and she uses her magic to drive the faithless Croesus even madder than he already is.

Needless to say, if you need to cram for a final exam in Ancient Greek history, you probably want to steer clear of Night in Paradise. You may want to steer clear of it anyway; as opulent and colorful as it is — with lavish sets, dazzling costumes and a supporting cast that includes Ray Collins, Ernest Truex, John Litel, Jerome Cowan and Douglass Dumbrille — the story never quite kicks into gear. At Friday’s screening I was still waiting for something to happen when “The End” appeared on the screen. The movie wasn’t exactly a waste of time — at the very least, it’s surely the best movie ever made about the love life of Aesop — but it seemed all wind-up and no pitch. I have a used copy of George Hellman’s novel on order, and the Web site I ordered it from hints at (ahem!) mature pleasures that may have been nixed by the Breen Office in 1946. (A reproduction of the book’s frontispiece shows the sorceress Atossa appearing to Aesop in full-frontal nudity.) As with Day 1’s Repeat Performance, I may have more to say about the novel and its transition to the screen at some later time. For now, moving right along…

Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937) was an installment in the prolific (51 pictures in eight years) Three Mesquiteers series at Republic Pictures. The trio of genial cowpokes (Robert Livingston, Ray “Crash” Corrigan and Max Terhune) take time off from their duties at the ranch to accompany an archaeological expedition to a lost Indian city and help the young woman leading it (Betty Marsh) learn the fate of her father, who disappeared leading a similar expedition to the same destination. In the process, they investigate a series of murders picking off members of the party one by one. The movie was enjoyable, but it was shot in eight days and it looks it; Republic (only two years old at the time) hadn’t yet found its footing as the most polished of the Poverty Row studios; there’s quite a difference between this specimen of the studio’s output and the Masked Marvel serial only five years later.

A more satisfying western was the 1920 William S. Hart silent The Toll Gate. Hart plays Black Deering, a semi-reformed outlaw on the run who takes refuge with an abandoned frontier wife (Anna Q. Nilsson) and her toddler son (“Master” Richard Headrick). He bonds with them so quickly that when a posse shows up on his trail (fortuitously not knowing what he looks like), she doesn’t hesitate to claim he’s her husband. Actually, it turns out that the husband who ran out on her is none other than the former member of Deering’s gang who ratted him out to the law. Director Lambert Hillyer’s scenario thus establishes the perfect set-up for a double dose of revenge before Deering settles down and makes his reformation complete, Nilsson’s Mary Brown having made an honest man of him. The picture had Hart’s trademark dusty realism, and his interplay with Nilsson and young Headrick had the unpretentious ring of truth. This Headrick kid especially, only three at the time, was a real charmer. He had a busy few years in Hollywood, but his screen career was over by the time he was nine. Still, he lived into the 21st century, dying at 84 in November 2001. “Nobody ever talked to him?” Scott Eyman wondered. Evidently not, and that’s a pity.

Richard Barrios did introductory honors again for The Phantom President (1932), one of the most historic musicals Hollywood ever turned out. It’s historic not because it’s one of the great film musicals (it’s pretty good but not great), but because it gives us a permanent record of George M. Cohan, the legendary force of showbiz nature who virtually single-handedly invented the American musical comedy. Personally, he was an arrogant megalomaniac who made Al Jolson look timorous; he made life hell for everybody on the set, especially those whose jobs he thought he could do better — director Norman Taurog, composer Richard Rodgers, lyricist Lorenz Hart — and he bad-mouthed the picture far and wide after it went into release. It was churlish of him; he never realized the inestimable service The Phantom President did to his legend, giving future generations something to go on besides yellowing press clippings and the dwindling memories of those who saw his performances in person.

Cohan plays Theodore K. Blair, prominent banker and front-runner of an unnamed political party for the presidential nomination. Problem is, he’s also a boring old poot who will lose votes every time he opens his mouth. Fortunately for the party, his handlers stumble across the lookalike Peter Varney (Cohan again), a medicine-show song-and-dance man with all the charm and pizzazz Blair lacks, and Varney is recruited to take the banker’s place on the campaign trail. Complications arise when he also takes Blair’s place at the side of one Felicia Hammond (Claudette Colbert), whom Blair harbors vain hopes of making his wife. She has already rejected him in no uncertain terms, but she takes a shine to Varney — thinking, of course, that he’s the same man.

Cohan’s glory days were well behind him by 1932, but he was still the genuine article. He was 54 but could pass for ten years younger, and his dual performance is nicely modulated (aided by some surprisingly sophisticated visual effects). Also, seeing him in action makes a striking counterpoint to James Cagney’s depiction of him ten years later in Yankee Doodle Dandy (which Cohan lived just long enough to see); we can see how one great performer was able to embody another without completely subsuming his own unique personality. Without The Phantom President, we’d still know that Cagney is brilliant in Yankee Doodle Dandy, but we might not know just how brilliant.

Phantom President does have its drawbacks, mostly thanks to Jimmy Durante as Varney’s sidekick. In those days the Great Schnozzola hadn’t yet mellowed into the loveable ham he would become; a little of him went a long way, and there’s a lot of him in The Phantom President (Cohan griped about that too). But the picture’s biting critique of politics as showbiz still has teeth in it (if anything, now more than ever). And Claudette Colbert looks like a million bucks.

The rest of Day 2 we can cover in a few paragraphs. C.B. DeMille’s Don’t Change Your Husband (1919) presented Gloria Swanson at her sleek-and-smartest as a neglected wife tempted away from her lumpen husband (Elliott Dexter) by a smooth-talking roué (Lew Cody), only to learn that the grass isn’t always greener.

Next, a real oddity: Double Whoopee (1929), one of Laurel and Hardy’s last silent shorts — but not silent. Let me explain. In the late 1960s Hal Roach experimented with a way to market his library of silent comedies. He commissioned this pilot from producer Al Kilgore, who removed the short’s intertitles and added a soundtrack with music, sound effects and voices — and hey presto!, a late silent became an early talkie. (Chuck McCann, who passed away just two months ago, voiced both Stan and Ollie, sounding absolutely authentic. Whoever did Jean Harlow as “Swanky Blonde”, however, didn’t even come close.) The result was actually quite good, but in the long run nothing came of the idea, and the reconstituted Double Whoopee became a one-off.

Finally there was Value for Money, a rather sour British comedy from 1955, about a tight-fisted Yorkshireman (John Gregson) who gets involved with a gold-digging London showgirl (Diana Dors), to the wounded dismay of local newspaper reporter Susan Stephen, who (unaccountably) loves him. The picture had excellent Technicolor photography by Geoffrey Unsworth (and Cinevent’s print did it full justice), and Diana Dors showed herself to be not just a luscious eyeful but a comic actress of wit  and charm. Still, the movie was a sour misfire, mainly because of John Gregson’s character — a clueless, mean-spirited boor who in the end gets much better than is coming to him. Somebody like Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers might have managed to make this unpleasant pill eccentrically endearing, but the worthy Gregson wasn’t that kind of actor. Value for Money has its moments of visual and verbal wit, but it’s weighed down by a flinty, unsympathetic center.

Thus ended Friday of Cinevent 50. The weekend had gotten off to a nice start, but Saturday would take things to a whole new level, an almost uninterrupted parade of highlights. I may have to cover the day in more than one post. We’ll see.

To be continued…

Cinevent 50 – Day 1

The opening day of Cinevent 50 got underway with the first three chapters of Republic Pictures’ 1943 serial The Masked Marvel, all about efforts to break up a ring of saboteurs led by the Japanese master spy Sakima, played by Johnny Arthur. Arthur is more familiar to audiences, then and now, as Darla Hood’s longsuffering father in Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedies. Seeing the man who could barely cope with Spanky and Alfalfa turning up as the scourge of America’s war effort was a major credulity stretch, to say the least.

But The Masked Marvel hardly gave us time to pause over that. This was the kind of opus for which the phrase “action-packed” was coined. Every 20-minute episode abounded in fistfights, gunfights, explosions and car crashes, the latter two courtesy of special-effects wizard Howard Lydecker and his older brother Theodore (what those two boys could accomplish on a budget of approximately nothing was amazing; I really must do a post on them someday).

To heighten the mystery, viewers were invited to figure out just who was the Masked Marvel himself. We were told in the first chapter that he was one of four candidates, but frankly, the suspense was undercut by the fact that they were almost impossible to tell apart, with or without masks. They were played by Rod Bacon, Richard Clarke, David Bacon (no relation to Rod) and Bill Healy — and four blander, less charismatic actors would be hard to imagine. 

There’s a grim footnote to all this. By the time the first chapter hit theaters in November 1943, one of the potential Marvels was already dead in real life. On September 12 of that year, David Bacon crashed his car into a beanfield on the then-outskirts of Los Angeles. As a bystander approached, Bacon staggered out of the car and collapsed, hemorrhaging from a knife wound in his back that had pierced his left lung and a lower chamber of his heart. He pleaded weakly for help, then died before he could say who had stabbed him or why. He was 29. The killing was never solved, but while the investigation was ongoing the L.A. papers dubbed it “the Masked Marvel murder”. Whether the moniker was the inspiration of some colorful reporter or a Republic Pictures publicist is probably an unworthy question, so let’s not entertain it, okay?

In his notes for Repeat Performance (1947) in  the Cinevent program, and again in introducting the screening, Richard Barrios described the picture as having the kind of premise that tends to lodge in the memory when the picture itself — even the title — is completely forgotten. I can vouch for that, except for the part about forgetting the title. I saw Repeat Performance during its second life on television, maybe 40 years ago, and it certainly stayed with me. Joan Leslie plays a Broadway star who begins 1947 by shooting her husband dead at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. In an understandable state of shock, she confesses to a poet friend (Richard Basehart in his screen debut), then ruefully wishes she could live the past year over again. Meanwhile, her poet friend — one of those wafty, ethereal types — wishes he’d been the one to have shot her philandering husband (“I would have, you know…”). A moment later she turns around to find the poet is suddenly gone, her clothes are different, and against all reason, it’s New Year’s Eve 1945. The husband she shot (Louis Hayward) is alive and well — though in short order he’ll show himself as a mean, abusive, adulterous drunk who richly deserves killing. Anyhow, the wronged wife’s wish to relive the year has been granted; but will it make any difference?  

Repeat Performance was based on a novel by William O’Farrell, with some major changes in Walter Bullock’s script. I’ve sent for a used copy of the book, just to see for myself. In any case, what made it to the screen under Alfred Werker’s efficient direction is a nifty little melodrama; in a way it’s another example of that odd sub-genre I once dubbed “supernatural noir“, and if it’s not quite as memorable as Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) or Alias Nick Beal (’49), it’s still pretty good in its own right. Richard Barrios described it, tongue in cheek, as “a film noir version of It’s a Wonderful Life“; a film noir version of Groundhog Day might be a better way to put it. I may have more to say about it after I’ve read O’Farrell’s novel; for now, let’s move on.

Just before the dinner break we saw Sweater Girl (1942), an enjoyable little Paramount “B” musical that just happened to feature one of the greatest song hits of the 1940s: “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” by Jule Styne and Frank Loesser. The story goes that Loesser and Styne were working on a musical at Poverty Row’s Monogram Pictures when Styne played the melody for his lyricist partner. “Forget about that,” Loesser said. “We won’t waste it here. We’ll take that one to Paramount.” It’s a terrific story and I hate to rain on it, but there’s no record of either Styne or Loesser ever working at Monogram. They did contribute some stock music to the Judy Canova hillbilly comedy Joan of Ozark at Republic. Maybe it was that. (In fact, they both worked at Republic quite a bit from 1940 to ’42, though apparently not together.) Anyhow, whenever Styne may have come up with the melody, they did wait till they were at Paramount to turn it into a song, and by the time Sweater Girl was released in July ’42 the number was a smash hit, recorded by Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Vaughn Monroe, and Phil Harris’s Orchestra (vocal by Helen Forrest), among others. It was on every singer’s lips and every drugstore jukebox; Irving Berlin said it was the one song he most wished he’d written. (Remarkably, “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” was not nominated for an Academy Award, even though there were ten nominees that year, including such utterly forgotten things as “Pig Foot Pete”, “Pennies for Peppino” and “There’s a Breeze on Lake Louise”. Well, it hardly matters. Nineteen-forty-two was the year of “White Christmas”; they could have nominated another hundred songs and none of them would have stood a chance.)

Aside from showcasing “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” — which it does very adroitly, the boys at Paramount knowing gold when they hear it — Sweater Girl was an amusing hybrid of murder mystery and hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show college musical, a remake of 1935’s College Scandal. It elevated Eddie Bracken from comic support to leading man (albeit in a B picture), preparing him for his apotheosis under Preston Sturges. Between Styne and Loesser’s sprightly songs, Bracken shared detective duties with perky June Preisser, who was winding down from her own apotheosis as the girl who almost wins Mickey Rooney away from Judy Garland in Babes in Arms (1939) and Strike Up the Band (1940). Vocal assignments on the movie’s biggest hit went to nightclub singer Johnny Johnston as the song’s ostensible composer (who gets strangled mid-chorus while demo-ing the song over shortwave radio) and Betty Jane Rhodes as the campus queen. (Rhodes and Johnston would later be teamed in a number of Paramount’s wartime morale-builders, where they were quite popular for a time on the home front.)

These were the highlights of the first day for me — in the screening room, that is. Outside the screening room, there was the Golden Celebration Reception on Thursday evening around the Renaissance Hotel’s pool. The inset on the left shows one of the three cakes for the occasion. In the right inset, my friend Phil Capasso is shown introducing special guest Leonard Maltin. Phil earned this privilege by virtue of being the only person to have attended all fifty Cinevents since the first one way back in 1969. (Phil got the first slice of cake, too.)

After that it was back to the screening room, where Scott Eyman spoke in conjunction with his latest book Hank and Jim: The Fifity-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart, then introduced Fonda and Stewart’s episode from On Our Merry Way (1948), an omnibus film produced by and starring Burgess Meredith, their erstwhile roommate from their starving-actor days in New York. The two were teamed as down-at-heels musicians trying to put on a music competition in a podunk town to get their band’s bus out of hock. Directed without credit by George Stevens, the episode is generally recognized as the best part of that rather lackluster feature. Then came Four Around a Woman (1921), an early silent melodrama from German director Fritz Lang; the print shown had German intertitles which were (fortunately!) translated aloud by Glory-June Greiff. Finally, it was the British police procedural The Third Key (UK title The Long Arm; 1956), with Jack Hawkins as a Scotland Yard inspector on the trail of a serial safecracker. And with that tidy little suspenser, we all called it a day.

To be continued…

Cinevent 50 – Prelude

For some years now the Wexner Center for the Arts on the Ohio State campus has offered a film program in conjunction with Cinevent on the Wednesday evening before the convention begins. Usually, my flight has landed me in Columbus too late to attend, but this year was different. I caught a redeye (yes, there is a redeye from Sacramento to Columbus) that got me to town bright and early, so I was able to catch the Wexner Center’s program of two pictures from the First Wave of 3D in the 1950s. Just for fun, I’ve reproduced here a lobby card for the black-and-white The Maze (1953) in color, and an ad for Gog (1954), which was in color, in black and white.

Well, these two movies were certainly something to have seen. The Wexner Center presented both pictures in their recent 4K Blu-ray incarnations, and credit is due to the 3D Film Archive (on The Maze) and archivist Bob Furmanek (Gog) for restoring these near-lost pictures to what audiences saw in the 1950s. That said, the fact remains that it wasn’t just technical and quality-control issues that killed 3D the first time around; much of the problem was that there were too few pictures like House of Wax and Kiss Me, Kate and too many like The Maze and Gog.

First, The Maze. It was directed by that greatest of all cinema production designers, William Cameron Menzies (his swan song as a director), and starred Richard Carlson as the heir to a Scottish castle suddenly and mysteriously called home as he is about to be married. Not to be put off, his fiancée (Veronica Hurst) follows him, only to find him suddenly aged and coldly unwelcoming. She senses that it has something to do with the sinister topiary maze outside the castle, and the fact that her bedroom is locked from the outside every night, and she’s right.

Dan Ullman’s script was based on a 1949 novel by the Swiss fantasist Maurice Sandoz (1892-1958). Sandoz’s German-language Wikipedia page says, “Characteristic of his narrative technique is that the ‘natural’ explanation, which makes the seemingly supernatural rationally comprehensible at the end of a story, is ultimately even more unbelievable than the idea of ghostly powers,” and so it is with The Maze. The picture’s 1953 ads implored, “Please do not reveal the amazing climax to your friends!”, and I’ll honor that request. Suffice it to say that at this amazing climax the Wexner Center rocked with gales of delighted laughter, and all I could think was, “Hello, ma baby/Hello, ma honey/Hello, ma ragtime gal…” (If you’ve seen The Maze, you’ll understand.) It fell to Richard Carlson to make this gobsmacking development “rationally comprehensible” in a post-climactic monologue, which he did with straight-faced aplomb, and to his eternal credit. There ought to be some special Oscar category for that kind of acting.

Gog (which was released in 1954, after the 3D craze had crashed and burned, and played in 3D in only five theaters before going more or less straight to TV) also concerned itself with mysterious goings-on, this time at a remote New Mexico underground installation building the components for an orbital space station. And this time in color. The picture was well-made in its shoestring way, directed by Herbert L. Strock and gamely acted by Richard Egan, Constance Dowling and Herbert Marshall. The problem was producer Ivan Tors’s utter lack of story skills. The same shortcoming plagued his syndicated half-hour series Science Fiction Theatre (1955-57). Some of the greatest s-f short stories of all time were being published during the 1950s in magazines like Analog, Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, just aching to be adapted into 30-minute TV episodes. But Tors, no doubt to save money, insisted on concocting stories of his own, and he was just no damn good at it. He’d then hand a story off to writers (here it was Tom Taggert and Richard G. Taylor) to dress it up with some pseudo-scientific doubletalk. The result was invariably half-baked science and undercooked fiction. Science Fiction Theatre was an idea whose time had come, but it would take The Twilight Zone four years later to deliver the goods. Ivan Tors muffed it, and Gog was a big-screen, 3D dress rehearsal for that blown opportunity.

All in all, despite the less-than-brilliant features on display, the evening at the Wexner Center was in the spirit of Cinevent, presenting Classic Era films as they were meant to be seen. Both The Maze and Gog are available on YouTube, but they are hardly the same experience — not in 3D, of course, and that’s just for starters. As we filed back to the bus to return to the hotel, not one of us doubted that we’d gotten our time-and-money’s worth.

And the fun hadn’t even started yet.

To be continued…

 

Cinevent Turns 50

UPDATE 5/6/18: There are still tickets available for Cinevent50’s Golden Celebration Reception on Thursday, May 24, and for the double bill of 3-D classics Gog and The Maze at the Wexner Center at Ohio State — plus, of course, you can register for Cinevent itself any time. Click here to sign up for your Cinevent package (including any souvenirs you might desire: tees, totes, etc.). Oh, and another thing — although the May 1 deadline has passed for the room block at the Renaissance Downtown, the special Cinevent rate of $129/night (plus taxes and fees) can still be had at the nearby Crowne Plaza Hotel. This rate will be available only until Friday, May 11. You can book your room by calling (877) 283-1700; be sure to request the Cinevent Block (or, if you register online, use Block Code CIN). Hurry, you don’t want to miss the fun!

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Cinedrome readers will remember, I’m sure, that I’m an enthusiastic booster of Cinevent, the Classic Film Convention held every Memorial Day Weekend in Columbus, Ohio. Every year for some time now I’ve reviewed the weekend after the fact, and I will again, but I’m writing about it beforehand because this year Cinevent is celebrating its 50th Anniversary, and I think it’s going to be an occasion not to be missed. Every year I urge readers to check out this friendly, intimate gathering of classic movie lovers. If you’ve been thinking, “Well, maybe one of these years…”, this would be a good time to start.

The convention’s special 2018 guest will be Leonard Maltin, who surely needs no introduction. Mr. Maltin will be there to launch his new book Hooked on Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime of Film Fandom. He’ll also be at the “Golden Celebration Reception” on Thursday evening, May 24 (available for an extra fee to attendees), and will introduce the Saturday afternoon screening of the Jack Benny comedy The Meanest Man in the World (1943).

Leonard Maltin won’t be the only distinguished author in attendance this year. Scott Eyman has long been a Cinevent regular, and he returns this year; his The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930 is the indispensable book on the transition to sound, and his biographies of John Wayne, Cecil B. DeMille, Louis B. Mayer and John Ford (to name just a few) are the next best thing to having known them personally. Scott’s latest book is Hank & Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart, and I plan to ask him to sign a copy for me. (There’s also a tantalizing event on Saturday afternoon’s agenda: “Maltin & Eyman conversation moderated by Caroline Breder-Watts.” I can’t wait to eavesdrop on that little chat.)

Richard Barrios attended his first Cinevent in 2017 and he’ll be back this year, hopefully to become, like Scott Eyman, a regular himself. His books include A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film and Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter, and he’ll introduce the Friday evening screening of George M. Cohan in The Phantom President (1932).  ‘Nuff said.

The film program this year looks awfully tempting too. For starters, I’m pleased to see that my wish last year to see George Pal’s 1953 production of The War of the Worlds has been granted. Not because I wished it, mind you, but because this picture was a particular favorite of the late John A. Stingley (1947-2007), one of Cinevent’s founders. All three founders — the other two being John H. Baker (1909-98) and Steven E. Haynes (1947-2015) — will be saluted this Golden Anniversary year with screenings that would have been to their own especial liking. Steve Haynes’s tribute will be a showing of the 1920 William S. Hart western The Toll Gate. For John Baker, whose greatest enthusiasm was for jazz films, the tribute will be a program of jazz shorts hosted by Columbus radio/TV personality Frederick C. Peerenboom, aka Fritz the Nite Owl.

 

 

Sunday morning will bring Kitty (1945) with Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland. Cinedrome readers will recognize this as one of my own particular favorites — Paulette Goddard’s finest hour, and an elegant piece of cinematic sleight of hand, turning the unfilmable-in-1945 story of a 14-year-old nymphomaniac Cockney hooker into an uncredited adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. (See my 2013 post on Kitty for the juicy details.)

 

 

Late Saturday night it’s Three Little Girls in Blue, 20th Century Fox’s third retread of Three Blind Mice, the tale of a trio of impoverished sisters who pose as a wealthy heiress and her servants, in hopes of landing rich husbands. This one stars June Haver, Vivian Blaine and Vera-Ellen as the golddigging sibs, and it’s probably the best Fox musical that didn’t involve Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Shirley Temple or Rodgers & Hammerstein. (Sorry, you fans of Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Not even in the same league.) Three Little Girls was also the source of two deathless standards that almost everybody knows but almost nobody knows where they came from: “On the Boardwalk (in Atlantic City)” and “You Make Me Feel So Young”.

These are just three highlights for me. There will be, as always, something for every Golden Age movie buff. Besides the titles already mentioned:

♦  Dreamboat (1952), with Clifton Webb as a stuffy college professor trying to live down his days as a silent-screen heartthrob, and Ginger Rogers as the former co-star who won’t let him;

♦  a midnight showing of the 1935 cult curiosity Murder By Television with Bela Lugosi;

♦  C.B. DeMille’s 1919 boudoir comedy Don’t Change Your Husband with Gloria Swanson, Elliott Dexter and Lew Cody;

♦  the supernatural B-western murder mystery Riders of the Whistling Skull;

♦  the Republic serial The Masked Marvel, about the pursuit of Japanese saboteurs in the darkest days of World War II, all 12 chapters strewn here and there throughout the weekend.

And more — including a Wednesday evening-before-the-convention screening at the Wexner Center on the Ohio State campus of the 1953 3-D thrillers The Maze and Gog (like the Thursday evening Golden Celebration Reception, available at an extra charge).

If you’re not already registered for this year’s Cinevent, you’ve missed out on the Early Bird discount — but it’s not too late. Click here to register — and don’t let any grass grow under your feet. The Golden Celebration Reception, 3-D double feature, and special Cinevent room rate at the Renaissance Downtown Columbus Hotel will only be available through Monday, April 30.  I said it before and I’ll say it again: If you’ve read any of my annual posts on Cinevent and thought it might be something you’d like to try sometime, now is the time to take the plunge.

I hope to see you there. Don’t forget to say hi.

Ave Atque Vale, Fairy Princess!

It has come to my attention that Nini Theilade has taken her last bow and made her final exit. Born in 1915 to Danish parents on the Island of Java in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), she passed away on February 13, four months shy of her 103rd birthday.

Mlle. Nini’s film career wasn’t nearly as long as her life. A bit role as a dancer in The Big Bluff, a German picture of 1933, followed by another such bit in the Swedish The Song to Her in 1934. Her fourth and final credit was 40 years later, a small role on a Danish TV program in 1974.

But in 1934, some time after her appearance in The Song to Her, she danced and acted the role of “Fairie, Attending Titania” in Max Reinhardt’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Hollywood Bowl. And the following year, when Reinhardt insisted that she be signed to repeat her performance in Warner Bros.’ screen version of Midsummer, he made her immortal.

It took nearly sixty years for the full measure of that immortality to be widely seen. Her role was almost entirely danced, and when the roadshow version was trimmed by 16 minutes for general release (where it didn’t earn a dime), she was left with little more than a brief scene with Mickey Rooney’s Puck (“Over hill, over dale,/Through bush, through brier…”). Even then, Rooney did most of the talking, and her voice was dubbed for all but eleven words. To add to that, the movie’s credits got her name wrong, calling her “Nina” instead of Nini.

When A Midsummer Night’s Dream was restored to its full length for DVD in 1994, the world could once again see the sublime beauty of Mlle. Theilade’s performance — her ethereal beauty and her lithe and lissom grace, poetry in motion that matches the enchanted poetry of Shakespeare’s verse — and we may thank a merciful Providence that she lived long enough to see it again herself. (The DVD, however, does offer an indignity to match her misspelled name in the credits. Scott MacQueen did a commentary track for the picture, which he clearly loathes, and he insisted throughout on pronouncing her name “Thigh-laid”. “Thay-ih-lah-deh” would be more like it.)

Nini Theilade’s film career may have been brief, but she was seldom idle. From the age of 14 she had been a ballet star in Europe, appearing with the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen and touring the Continent and the U.S. Later in the 1930s she was a prima ballerina with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo under Léonide Massine. She spent World War II in Brazil, where she married and had two children. After the war, back in Copenhagen, she enjoyed a thriving career as a choreographer and instructor, eventually establishing the Académie de Ballet Nini Theilade in Lyon, France. She “retired” to Denmark in 1990, but continued to work as a dance instructor until she was 95. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream she is with us forever, always 19 and in the prime of her youth and talent.

I saluted Nini Theilade, Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland at the end of my 2010 post on Midsummer, when they were all still with us. I added an update on the passing of Mickey Rooney, and I’ve added another one now. But as with the Mick, I wanted to acknowledge Nini Theilade’s passing here as well, rather than let readers come across the news by happenstance, perhaps years from now. Ave atque vale, Mlle. Nini: Hail and farewell.

The Return of the King

The Return of the King is at hand.

As you can see from the picture, I’m talking about King of Jazz (1930), the spectacular, groundbreaking revue from Universal Pictures that showcased bandleader Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra, the Oscar-winning sets of Herman Rosse, the eye-popping imagination of director John Murray Anderson, and the screen debut of Bing Crosby.

The music-rights issues that kept King of Jazz from a home-video release after NBCUniversal’s unstinting digital restoration in 2016 have been resolved, and this greatest of all early-sound revues will be released on Tuesday, March 27 in a 4K Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection — along with what seems a generous complement of supplements. It’s available for pre-order here at Amazon. (It’s also being issued in a conventional DVD, but I say spring for the 4K; you won’t regret it.)

I shall not mince words. This is a case of buy-this-disc-or-never-dare-to-call-yourself-a-movie-lover-again. I don’t care how many thousands of Blu-rays, DVDs, laserdiscs, videotapes or film prints you may have; if you don’t get this, the first and only authentic King of Jazz, your collection will be forever incomplete.

I wrote about King of Jazz here and here; click over for details of the making, unmaking, disappearance, and rescue of the landmark in Hollywood history. I think I’m safe in saying that never before has a movie so unique and so good lost this much money ($1.2 million in 1930 dollars; multiply by about a hundred to get an idea of that amount today), dropped out of sight for so long, or surfaced (in a 1980s VHS) in more mangled form before finally emerging in a flawless and virtually-complete restoration.

My disc of King of Jazz is on its way. When I’ve had a chance to see it (that is, to see it again, after its screening in Sacramento in February 2017) and to peruse its supplements, I’ll file a report. Until then, movie buffs, get thee to Amazon before the sun sets on another day.