Rhapsody in Green and Orange – EPILOGUE

Scroll down to see, if you haven’t seen it already, my two-part tribute to Universal Pictures’ King of Jazz (1930). This epilogue is for the benefit of Cinedrome readers who live within traveling distance of Sacramento, Calif. I’ve got big news, and the news is this:

The February 22 screening at Sacramento’s Tower Theatre is ON!

Kudos to the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society for sponsoring this screening. They’re not only bringing this brilliant restoration of a truly one-of-a-kind historic picture to Sacramento audiences, but they’re stealing a march on San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and every other city on the West Coast except Los Angeles (where KOJ screened at Cinecon in September). This is a real feather in Sacramento’s cap — and in the Jazz Society’s.

I urge anybody who can make their way to the Tower at the corner of Broadway and Land Park Drive in Sacramento by 7:00 p.m. on the 22nd of next month to nail their tickets down right away — seating is limited, and it may be a while before the inevitable Blu-ray makes its way to market. It seems that clearing the music rights to all the songs used in King of Jazz is proving quite a challenge; unlike MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount and other studios, Universal never had their own music company. And besides, in 1930 nobody foresaw the need to secure video — or even television — rights. Somehow this issue didn’t arise when Universal issued their “bastard” VHS version in the 1980s, but it’s here now: the rights have drifted off into the (possibly unknowing) hands of diverse relatives, survivors and heirs and are proving quite a can of worms to track down.

Theatrical rights, however, are another matter, of course — Universal secured those in perpetuity back in 1930, and they’ve guarded them closely ever since. (The Los Angeles County Museum of Art walked into a humiliating buzzsaw back in 1970 when they announced a screening of an incomplete print borrowed from a private collector without securing the necessary rights. Universal lowered the boom, the egg-faced Museum had to back down, and the thing only blew over when they offered to surrender the print to the Library of Congress. The hapless collector was out of luck.)

Fortunately, there’ll be no such problem at the Jazz Society’s upcoming benefit screening. They’ve secured rights, and in fact Mike Daruty, NBCUniversal’s Senior V.P. for Global Media Operations, is tentatively scheduled to join us all at the Tower and introduce the picture.

So spare no effort and do yourselves a favor: Get your ticket(s) now, either by clicking on the link above to the Jazz Society’s home page, or by clicking here to go directly to their ticket site. King of Jazz may have been a financial debacle for Universal back in the day, but believe me, of all the studio revues of the early sound era, there isn’t another one that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. And in its newly restored form, it certainly doesn’t look like an 86-year-old movie.

I hope I’ve persuaded you; the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society is doing a tremendous public service by sponsoring this screening, and they deserve to benefit to the max from it. Meanwhile, here are another couple of links for your enjoyment and edification:

A YouTube post of My Pal Paul, a black-and-white Walter Lantz cartoon produced by Universal as a cross-promotion; and

A Vimeo clip with a three-minute trailer for the picture. Unfortunately, it’s from a 16mm print with badly faded color; trust me, the picture looks much better now (and for that matter, it sounds better too, with a cleaned-up monaural soundtrack). This link is generously provided by my friend Matías at Matías Bombal’s Hollywood.

A Holiday Treat (I Hope!) for Cinedrome Readers

The story goes that 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; there was a healthy market among magazines for 4,100-word short stories in those days — but not, it seemed, for “The Greatest Gift”.  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. Not because I ever expect anyone to make a great picture out of it; in fact, it’s nothing to do with movies or Hollywood at all. 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 find it on the drop-down menu under Jim’s Fiction at the top of the page. Just click on the title and there you are.

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!

Jim

Rhapsody in Green and Orange, Part 2

official-photo-girls02If John Murray Anderson had been on board from the get-go, and if production had begun promptly once Paul Whiteman was signed in October 1928, King of Jazz might have caught the crest of the studio-revue wave as talkies came in, instead of sinking in the undertow as the wave rolled out. At the very least, the picture’s astronomical costs would have been only a fraction of what they were — even with Technicolor and Herman Rosse’s spectacular sets (which won him an Oscar for 1929-30). That in turn would have made King of Jazz‘s profit threshold a lot lower; in all likelihood, the picture would have cost less and earned more. But such was not to be. King of Jazz’s big splash turned into a belly-flop, and it sank like a rock.

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And that might have been the end of it, had it not been for something that almost nobody in 1930 foresaw: Bing Crosby became a star. In King of Jazz he got only seventh billing — and at that, not even by name, but as one of the Rhythm Boys (with Al Rinker and Harry Barris), the scat-singing piano and vocal trio that toured as members of Whiteman’s band. If anybody had been making predictions at the time, they probably would have picked Harry Barris as the one who was going places. But instead it was Bing, first on records, then radio, finally in movies with 1932’s The Big Broadcast at Paramount (where they wasted no time putting him under contract). He wasn’t yet the national institution he would become (and remain to his dying day), but he was definitely hot, and his popularity was a factor in Universal’s decision to reissue King of Jazz in June 1933. (Another factor was the return of musicals to audience favor in the wake of 42nd Street, Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933 over at Warner Bros.)

This reissue was a substantially different movie from the one audiences saw (or more often, didn’t see) in 1930. The order of the sequences was changed and the running time slashed from 104 minutes to 65. Production numbers were shortened, at least one whole song eliminated (“I’d Like to Do Things for You”, sung by pert little Jeanie Lang to Paul Whiteman, then reprised by William Kent and Grace Hayes, then again by the dance act Nell O’Day and the Tommy Atkins Sextet). All but one of the comedy blackouts were cut, while three that had been shot in 1930 but never used were added. Bing’s appearances with the Rhythm Boys were all retained, of course, and he was given star billing in a new set of opening credits.

Also substantially different had been the foreign market versions of King of Jazz that had played overseas during 1930 and ’31. The United Kingdom got the same picture as the U.S., but foreign language versions dispensed with all the comedy blackouts and added new introductions for the musical selections, shot with native-speaking hosts in Spanish, Czech, Hungarian (one of the hosts here was the as-yet-unknown Bela Lugosi), Swedish, Portuguese, German, Italian, French and Japanese.

rhapsody-intro-whiteman02So let’s recap: By the end of 1933, there had been a total of some 11 distinctly different versions of King of Jazz (or El Rey del Jazz, Král jazzu, Der Jazzkönig, La Féerie du Jazz, Kingu Obu Jazu, etc.) playing somewhere on the globe at one time or another. This confusing plethora of source material would present quite a challenge 80-plus years later, when NBCUniversal undertook to restore the picture in 2015.

But first would come decades of obscurity — partly because, while movie musicals managed to regain favor with audiences, revues never did, and partly because Technicolor’s perfecting of their three-strip process in 1934 rendered King of Jazz‘s two-strip Tech obsolete (and, in the eyes of the Technicolor Corp., a bit of an embarrassment). King of Jazz was never released on 16mm for non-theatrical markets, nor was it in any of the packages released to television — the customary routes for movies to find their way into the underground world of film collecting. Among movie buffs the picture gained the status of wistful legend, a movie that few could remember seeing, nobody could even guess at where or how to find, and only trivia connoisseurs had ever even heard of. By 1954, it was commonly assumed that nothing survived but the picture’s trailer.

Then in the 1960s bits and pieces began surfacing here and there, snippets unearthed at various archives and distribution centers. There was even a “reconstruction” in 1965 that managed to combine a mute copy of the image from the French La Féerie du Jazz with soundtrack discs from the Czech Král jazzu. That was no doubt a strange animal indeed — but it was the only King of Jazz anybody knew about.

That is, until a nearly-complete nitrate print surfaced in the late ’60s, a print whose origins are still a little cloudy. One story, probably apocryphal, claimed that it was found among Benito Mussolini’s effects after his execution in 1945, and it was known in some quarters as “the Mussolini print”. But that’s hardly likely; if Mussolini had anything, it surely would have been Il re de jazz.

In 1968, British broadcaster and film collector Philip Jenkinson gained access to this “Mussolini” print and made his own dupe negative from it, which he used to strike 16mm prints for discreet trading among collectors. As additional footage became available (and Jenkinson did have his connections), this version grew from 88 to 95 minutes by 1975.

Finally, long story short — again, pick up James Layton and David Pierce’s book for the full fascinating story — Universal licensed King of Jazz for selected festival screenings, and they made preservation elements from the original nitrate camera negative, which miraculously survived in the studio’s vault (albeit only in the 65 min. reissue version; cuts had been made in the original negative and all the trims discarded). The picture was released to cable TV in March 1983, and on VHS cassette later that year.

frame23-rhapsody-piano-bandstand03aIt’s this VHS version that has been in circulation for 33 years (never available on DVD except in various bootlegs), and on which my own fondness for King of Jazz has always rested. (The picture here, and the shot of the Russell Markert Girls in Part 1, are frame-caps from it.) Now I learn that this was (in Layton and Pierce’s words) “a bastardized version…a mishmash of the 1930 and 1933 releases compiled to create the longest possible cut.” And at that, it still runs only 91 minutes.

Worse, the Universal home video department, in a (possibly) well-intended but (definitely) misguided effort to make the color more natural-looking to modern audiences, tinkered with the two-strip Tech — e.g., cranking up the blue, a color to which the process was blind. You can see it in this picture.

(As an aside, this kind of thing was common in those early days of home video, though it never sparked the outrage that attended the colorizing of black-and-white movies, since people had nothing to compare it to. Case in point: Warner Bros.’ Mystery of the Wax Museum. That one was long believed lost until a 35mm nitrate print surfaced in 1969 — by some reports, in Jack L. Warner’s private collection. I saw that print projected in a Midnight Halloween screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1970. The palette was limited, of course, but the color was delicately gorgeous, a far cry from the pallid, harsh, high-contrast image on every video release I’ve ever seen. Those releases all derive from the print I saw, the only one in existence, and I’m here to tell you they’re all absolutely wrong.)

The source material used for that VHS release of King of Jazz was highly variable, and some of it was pretty badly battered, with high contrast and washed-out color. In restoring the picture, NBCUniversal reviewed 16 different surviving picture elements of varying lengths, ultimately using four of them and coordinating with a complete 104 minute copy of the original soundtrack. I was going to scan some of the images from the restoration (as published in Layton and Pierce’s book) and post them here with frame-caps from the VHS for comparison, but there’s an even more dramatic demonstration available at the Two-Strip Technicolor site on Tumblr. Click on the link to see before-and-after crossfades from the VHS to the digital restoration (including the image immediately above).

official-photo-band-in-piano02Seen today — and I speak, of course, from familiarity with the “bastardized” VHS release — King of Jazz remains an embarrassment of riches. Some, admittedly, are richer than others, while some are chiefly of historical interest as examples of the kind of comedy and novelty performances that died with vaudeville. Several of the more impressive set pieces — for example, “My Bridal Veil”, a pageant of wedding attire from different historical eras from the 1550s to the 1920s, and “Rhapsody in Blue” itself — are film versions of shows John Murray Anderson staged for Paramount Publix Theatres. As such, they are of keen interest to those of us who know about such prologues only from what we can see in Footlight Parade. To see these extravaganzas in the flesh must really have been a knockout; to see them now in Technicolor is a real trip in the time machine.

It must be said that the movie gives short shrift to the African American contribution to the birth and development of true jazz — a contribution that was, of course, commanding, overwhelming and absolutely dominant. In the picture’s spectacular finale, “The Melting Pot of Music”, the roots of American popular music are traced to influences from England, Italy, Scotland, Germany, Ireland, Spain, Russia, and France. Conspicuous by their absence are elements from anywhere other than the continent of Europe — nothing from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean or Native America. But King of Jazz is a product of its time, and it never pretends to be an analytical documentary. It’s best that we judge not, lest we be judged and found wanting 90 years hence. Within the limits of its day and time, King of Jazz is a sumptuous spectacle and an impressive achievement.

Made even more impressive, one trusts and evidence suggests, in the new digital restoration so lovingly chronicled in King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue. As restored, the picture now runs 99 minutes; a few minutes, alas, seem irretrievably lost. Selected screenings are being scheduled worldwide, and a Blu-ray release must surely be on the table at some point. If you happen to be within driving distance of Cinedrome’s home in Sacramento, California, you may be in luck: A screening is tentatively scheduled (awaiting signing of contracts) for February 22, 2017 at Sacramento’s Tower Theatre, as a benefit for the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society. Personally, I’m counting the days; I can hardly wait to finally see this movie I’ve always liked so much. (UPDATE 12/3/16: The February 22 screening at the Tower Theatre is now confirmed. There will be one showing only, and tickets should become available around January 1. Watch this space for further details. — jl)

Rhapsody in Green and Orange, Part 1

poster03eI’ve always had a tremendous fondness for King of Jazz (1930).

Partly, this is because of my fascination with the early days of sound, when the carefully compiled rule book of how to make motion pictures went flying out the window and everybody had to start over again from Square One. (I insert here a plug for Scott Eyman’s The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930, the definitive chronicle of those chaotic years and one of the indispensible books on movie history. If you haven’t read it, do. You can thank me later.)

Looking back on those days when silent moviemaking went doggedly on even as part-talkies and all-talkies were becoming more and more dominant, we can see that the silent pictures of those transitional days, almost without exception, were vastly superior to the halting, lurching, lumbering experiments with sound that were coming out at the same time. Yes, they were better — but it didn’t matter. Audiences simply wouldn’t have the old stuff; they wanted talking pictures, and Hollywood had damn well better get with the program.

It was, in a way, an illustration of the old saw that said if you’re being run out of town, get out in front and make it look like a parade. While more and more picture houses, starting in the big cities and spreading out inexorable through the smaller markets, became wired for sound, the studios ransacked the theater world not only for talent but for ideas.

The 1920s on Broadway were the Golden Age of the Musical Revue, those hybrids of vaudeville and book musical comprised of singing, dancing, comedy and specialty acts, with no story but united under some all-encompassing theme. There were Florenz Ziegfeld’s annual Follies, of course, but also his Midnight Frolics, Earl Carroll’s Vanities, the Shubert Brothers’ The Passing Show, and a host of other annual productions and one-offs. In 1920, out of 55 musicals produced on Broadway, 16 were revues; in 1925 it was 15 out of 67; in 1929, 15 out of 63. The pattern holds for the entire decade: in any given Broadway season, no fewer than one in six musicals, and often as many as one in three, were revues.

Hollywood adopted the revue concept with alacrity. At MGM The Hollywood Revue of 1929 promised to be the first of an annual series (though it wasn’t); Warner Bros. came out with The Show of Shows, Paramount with Paramount on Parade, Fox with Happy Days.

At Universal it was King of Jazz, one of the first productions announced but, because of an expensive series of delays and false starts, the last one released. I’ve always found it the best of the bunch — sprightly, light on its feet, and in its way as daringly experimental as Citizen Kane. But as much as I’ve always liked King of Jazz, I now realize that I’ve never actually seen it.  

koj-book-72dpi02aThis disconcerting knowledge comes to me courtesy of a sumptuous, stunning new book, King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue by James Layton and David Pierce. (Full disclosure: I contributed $100 to the Kickstarter campaign to underwrite the book’s publication.) Layton and Pierce are the authors of the equally sumptuous and stunning The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915 – 1935, which was essentially a history of two-strip Technicolor, the process that was King of Jazz‘s second most important ace in the hole. (Its first was director John Murray Anderson, but I’ll get to him in a moment.)

Layton and Pierce’s book chronicles the back story of King of Jazz, beginning with the founding of Universal Pictures and progressing through the studio’s venturing into sound picture production by signing a contract with superstar bandleader Paul Whiteman; the picture’s checkered production history; its brutal box-office reception; its decades of obscurity and near-lost status; gradual rediscovery beginning in the late 1960s; and its eventual election to the National Film Registry in 2013, which spurred Universal to undertake a digital restoration in 2015 (completed earlier this year).

This restoration, which premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last May, brings King of Jazz (for the first time in 85 years) to within a few minutes of what audiences saw in 1930. And high time, too, because those of us who treasure King of Jazz have been basing our opinions on a “bastardized” version that first appeared on VHS in the 1980s.

whiteman01bI refer you to Layton and Pierce’s book to get the story in every fascinating detail. Here’s just a rough outline. In 1928 Universal signed bandleader Paul Whiteman to appear in the studio’s first all-talking picture, to be called King of Jazz — the sobriquet that had stuck to Whiteman, especially after he commissioned George Gershwin to compose “Rhapsody in Blue” for a 1924 concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall. (Note: I am indebted to the family of the late Jack Fulton, trombonist with the Whiteman band, and to Matías Bombal of Matías Bombal’s Hollywood, for this portrait of Whiteman, which the bandleader inscribed to Fulton in the 1920s.)

Actually, Whiteman was not (and did not pretend to be) a true jazz musician, but he knew a good hook when he heard it. Besides, he admired jazz and its practitioners, and he incorporated jazz styles and ideas into the carefully crafted arrangements that made his kind of music so wildly popular throughout the 1920s. The term “jazz” in those days encompassed the genre we’d call “pop” today (cf. the play and movie title The Jazz Singer, which is really about a pop singer); in that sense its application to Whiteman is fitting: he was, in his day, the true King of Pop — probably the first one, in fact.

Once Universal had Whiteman signed — on terms highly beneficial to the bandleader and his musicians, with perks that included the entire band’s salary and a special lodge built for them all to rehearse and relax in on the Universal City lot — the studio proceeded to…well…dither over exactly what kind of picture King of Jazz should be. The portly Whiteman was adamant that he was no actor (a point he would go on to prove in his later movie guest appearances) and he nixed any approach that would attempt to make him a romantic figure. With Hungarian emigré director Paul Fejos attached, story ideas were floated: a conventional biopic; a romance centering on two (fictitious) young people attached to the band, with Whiteman as a sort of father figure to the young lovers; and so on. Nothing jelled, and nothing met with Whiteman’s approval. Months passed; the band idled on Universal’s dime (except for their weekly radio show for Old Gold Cigarettes, which was broadcast from the West Coast) and the picture’s cost mounted without a single frame of film passing through a camera.

anderson01aFinally, exit Paul Fejos and enter John Murray Anderson. Anderson, 43 in 1929, was one of the acknowledged masters (perhaps even the preeminent one) of the musical revue, having first made his mark with The Greenwich Village Follies, which moved from Sheridan Square to Broadway in 1919. The show packed ’em in for months and led to annual sequels for the next six years, then a final edition in 1928. Anderson’s hallmarks were taste, artistry and technical innovation on a modest budget.

In 1925 Anderson signed with Publix Theatres, the distribution wing of Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players-Lasky Corp. (which owned and operated Paramount Pictures) to produce stage presentations for Publix theaters across the country. These “prologues”, designed to play before the main feature in motion picture houses, would be produced in New York and packaged to tour the Paramount circuit. (The practice was popular for years, but it would eventually wither with the changing economics of movie exhibition. Today its memory survives mainly in the premise of Busby Berkeley’s Footlight Parade of 1933; in fact, James Cagney’s character in Footlight Parade, Chester Kent, was probably inspired by Anderson).

After three years and over 50 shows, Anderson and Publix parted company over “creative differences” — i.e., Publix bridled at the shows’ increasing costs and Anderson resented Publix’s bean-counting. Anderson moved on to another Broadway revue, Murray Anderson’s Almanac, an ambitious project that folded after a disappointing run of only 69 performances.

By September 1929, with his Almanac in the process of flopping (it closed on October 12), Anderson was at loose ends. Fortunately, Universal came calling. They had abandoned the idea of making King of Jazz a story picture and now planned it as a revue. Their first choice to produce it, Florenz Ziegfeld, turned them down, so Whiteman suggested they approach Anderson. Anderson said yes.

After extensive consultations with Whiteman and Universal’s 21-year-old production chief Carl Laemmle Jr. (son of the studio’s founder), and preparations with set designer Herman Rosse (a longtime colleague of Anderson’s, with whom he had worked on Greenwich Village Follies and at Publix), production began on November 15, 1929 and concluded on March 20, 1930. The final product was, as Layton and Pierce aptly put it, “effectively a ‘greatest hits’ of John Murray Anderson and Paul Whiteman, mixed with the best elements of Broadway and vaudeville.” It featured musical performances by the Whiteman band and a variety of vocalists: John Boles, Jeanette Loff, Jeanie Lang, the Brox Sisters, and, in their screen debut, Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys: Bing Crosby, Al Rinker and Harry Barris. Interspersed with these were comedy blackouts performed by such studio contract players as Walter Brennan, Slim Summerville, Laura La Plante, and Glenn Tryon, plus Broadway import William Kent.

frame38-happy-feet-markert-girls02There was dancing, too. Most prominent in this area was a group of 16 high-kicking precision tappers then known as the Russell Markert Girls; in time this ensemble would come to be known as the Rockettes — first at New York’s 5,900-seat Roxy Theatre, then at Radio City Music Hall, where the group continues to this day. King of Jazz was, for them as for Bing Crosby, their movie debut.

In addition to these proto-Rockettes there were the singing and dancing Sisters G (aka German-born Karla and Eleanore Knospe, who took the “G” from their stepfather Georg Gutöhrlein), two sweetly sexy lookalikes with Louise Brooks haircuts and impish European charm; and Al Norman, an eccentric “rubberlegs” hoofer who danced a specialty during the “Happy Feet” production number, where Sisters G and the Markert Girls also had their chance to shine.

From the start of production, it was understood that Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” would be on the bill somewhere — a Paul Whiteman movie without it was simply unthinkable. Gershwin accordingly demanded a pretty penny for the rights — $50,000 — and got it. But a more intransigent challenge was the fact that two-strip Technicolor couldn’t photograph blue; it could handle red and green, and various combinations thereof, but that was it.

Anderson and Rosse took a two-pronged approach: (1) they interpreted the title as meaning “blue” in the sense of “melancholy” or “singing the blues”; and (2) as Anderson described it in his autobiography, “Rosse and I made tests of various fabrics and pigments, and by using an all gray and silver background finally arrived at a shade of green which gave the illusion of peacock blue.”

Universal released King of Jazz with all the fanfare they could muster in April 1930, and early returns looked promising. Alas, once the picture moved beyond its early road-show engagements in the big cities, it tanked. The long shilly-shallying over what kind of picture it should be had been its undoing — it had run up costs while the Whiteman band bummed around Universal City and Los Angeles doing nothing much, and worse, it allowed the public to become bored with the whole revue genre. Universal, in effect, waited to strike until the iron was cold.

In Europe, which was behind America’s curve on sound and where musical revues hadn’t yet worn out their welcome, King of Jazz did much better than at home. But not well enough: the final take worldwide was $1.7 million and change, against total costs of a hair over $3 million; Universal lost over $1.2 million (as I’ve mentioned before, multiply these numbers by 100 to get an approximate idea of the value in 2016 dollars). Only the simultaneous bonanza of All Quiet on the Western Front saved the studio from disaster.

Next time: Whither King of Jazz after 1930?

Mr. Stewart Goes to War

mission-cover02aI’m preparing a post now on Clara Bow’s career in talking pictures, a career that was longer and more estimable than posterity has given her credit for. Well, as so often happens here at Cinedrome, that post is growing and deepening as I work on it, and has been accordingly delayed. But it has to go on a back burner for now in any case, because my friend Robert Matzen is about to publish his latest book. It’s one that belongs on the bookshelf of every Cinedrome reader — and a lot of other bookshelves besides. This new book not only goes a long way to fill a decades-old gap in our knowledge of the life and times of one of America’s most beloved movie stars, it also adds significantly to our knowledge — at least it added to mine — of the rigors and terrors of aerial warfare during World War II.

This is the book: Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. Robert Matzen, Cinedrome readers will recall, is the author of Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Tragedy of Flight 3, a riveting page-turner about the death of Carole Lombard, who became the first celebrity casualty of World War II when her plane crashed on the way home from a war bond rally in Indiana. Mission tells us, in harrowing detail, how close James Stewart — Hollywood’s “boy next door” and an Oscar winner for 1940’s The Philadelphia Story — came to becoming another casualty of that same war. And not in a stateside bond tour, but in combat in the skies over Germany.

It’s common knowledge that James Stewart is one of the greatest stars in the history of Hollywood; in the American Film Institute’s 1999 list of the screen’s 50 greatest legends, he ranked third among men behind Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. Less commonly known is that he was the highest-ranking actor in military history (not counting Ronald Reagan’s two terms as Commander in Chief), retiring from the U.S. Air Force Reserve as a brigadier general in 1968. He always kept his screen and military careers carefully separate, especially during the war. There was a flurry of publicity when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in March 1941 (nine months before Pearl Harbor), but that media circus led him to hold the press at arm’s length thereafter, and his military higher-ups generally cooperated by shielding him. Throughout the war, hopeful reporters were often reduced to filing pouty dispatches about how Lt. (later Capt., Maj., Lt. Col. and Col.) Stewart wouldn’t talk to them. And after the war, in the 52 years that remained to him, he spoke sparingly and in the most general terms about his war service. Of his experiences flying bombing missions over France and Germany — aside from a brief stint as a talking head on Thames Television’s documentary series The World at War, identified only as “James Stewart, Squadron Commander” — he spoke hardly at all.

b24Stewart may have virtually taken the story of his wartime service, and his 20 combat missions in B-17 and B-24 bombers, to his grave, but Robert Matzen has exhumed the bones of  the story from official military records and mission reports, and fleshed them out with the diaries, memoirs and recollections of the men who flew with Stewart and others like him, and with his own understanding of aeronautics born of ten years working in communications for NASA. He also gives us a keen insight into the tradition of military service that ran back generations in Jimmy Stewart’s family, something Stewart himself never elaborated on — perhaps because it would sound too much like bragging, perhaps because it was too internalized to bring to the surface.

Strictly speaking, Jimmy Stewart was actually James Maitland Stewart II (though his birth certificate didn’t put it that way). J.M. the First was his paternal grandfather, a Signal Corps sergeant during the Civil War who rode with Sheridan and Custer in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864, saw action at Cedar Creek, Five Forks and Sailor’s Creek, and was present at Appomattox Court House as Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Fifty years later, he would regale young Jim with tales of seeing Lee, Grant, Sheridan, Custer and Lincoln all in the flesh. “This,” Matzen tells us succinctly, “wasn’t history in a book.” (Did young Jim reflect on this family lore in 1938, when he played a Union Army doctor receiving an audience with President Lincoln in Of Human Hearts? How could he not?) Sgt. Stewart also had a brother Archibald who didn’t survive the war, falling at Spotsylvania.

Then there was Jim’s maternal grandfather, Col. Samuel M. Jackson, who fought in the Wheatfield at Gettysburg and helped hold the Federal left on the second day, rising to the rank of general by war’s end. Gen. Jackson died before Jim was born, but his devotion to serving his country remained legendary in the family and mingled with that of Sgt. Stewart and his brother Archie.

And with that of Jim’s own father Alexander. He served briefly in the Spanish-American War but saw no action; he fell ill in Puerto Rico, and that “splendid little war” was over before he recovered. He didn’t give up; 20 years later, age 45 and married with children, he re-enlisted when America entered the Great War and served in France in the Ordnance Repair Dept.

mission-look-cover300dpi03b

A future in military service for James Stewart the Younger was a foregone conclusion, and he began preparing for it even as he was climbing the ladder to stardom in Hollywood (and, as a playboy bachelor, cutting a swath through Tinsel Town’s female population, amusingly recounted by Matzen). An early fascination with aviation (and hero-worship of Charles Lindbergh, whom he would later play in the movies) made him set his sights on the Army Air Corps, plunging into flying lessons as soon as he could afford them. (Fun Little-Known Fact: James Stewart got his commercial pilot’s license even before his first Oscar nomination.)

When Mission follows Capt. Stewart to combat duty in England, after a frustrating two years stateside training men to face the action he wanted to see, the book becomes an eye-opening chronicle of the nightmare of aerial combat. Robert Matzen puts us on the flight deck and in the bomb bays and gun turrets as vividly as Laura Hillenbrand put us in the saddle in her brilliant Seabiscuit. Reading Mission is as close as you’ll ever want to get to flying at 20,000 feet swaddled in a heated suit against the 40-below weather, icicles dangling from (and occasionally clogging) your oxygen mask, struggling to keep your behemoth plane in formation while anti-aircraft flak rips holes in your fuselage and hundreds of Luftwaffe fighters swarm around you like death-dealing wasps. Twenty times Oscar-winner Stewart went through it — eight, nine, ten hours in the air, never knowing which split-second might be his last. No wonder he never talked about it.

collage01As he did in Fireball, Matzen completes the picture he paints by recounting the experiences of others who lived through the air war over Europe from perspectives of their own. From top to bottom here:

Sgt. Clement Leone of Baltimore, a radio operator in Stewart’s combat wing, who was a senior in high school when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and whose fascination with airplanes, like Stewart’s, channeled him into the Air Corps once he turned 18. Leone’s exploits, especially after being blown out of his exploding plane over German territory, would make a book in themselves. (Non-spoiler alert: Leone survived, came home, and is today alive and well; he was a key source of Robert Matzen’s insight into life in a bomber crew.);

Gen. Adolf Galland (with the moustache) of the Luftwaffe’s fighter wing, who flew hundreds of missions against American bombers, and did not share Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s contempt for the Americans and their Flying Fortresses and Liberators; and

The Siepmann family of Wilhelmshaven, later Eppstein near Frankfurt. Papa Hans was a naval engineer working on U-boats. Mama Riele and their children lived through the Allied bombing campaign as civilians cowering in the shadow of those planes overhead; they didn’t share Göring’s contempt either. Their oldest child Gertrud (far left) later married an American G.I. and emigrated to America in 1956. Robert Matzen knew her for years as Trudy McVicker before learning of her childhood in Hitler’s Germany and coaxing her to contribute her memories to Mission.

Whether you’re interested in Jimmy Stewart, Hollywood, World War II, or all three, you want to read Mission. The official publication date is Monday, October 24. You can order the book here from Amazon. And you can learn more about the book here, about stops on the upcoming Mission National Book Tour here, and about Robert Matzen himself here.

Take my advice and don’t let any grass grow under your feet. I won’t be surprised if the first printing sells out. 

“Glamour Boys” Begins…

Today marks the beginning of my first work of new fiction here at Cinedrome; the title is Glamour Boys. Now here, I guess, if I was really good at this sort of thing, I’d launch into some tantalizing inside-flap-of-the-dust-jacket copy describing the story and the characters, hooking and reeling you in like an expert fisherman. But honestly, that’s not really my long suit; I think I’d rather just let Chapter I, and those that follow, speak for themselves. To begin reading, hover on Jim’s Fiction at the top and select the title.

Glamour Boys, I say again, is a work of fiction. The persons, firms and events portrayed therein are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. No identification with any real firms, or with any real persons living or dead, is intended, and none should be inferred.

That said, I hope it meets with your approval…

Grand Opening!

Welcome to the New! Improved! Cinedrome! As you can see, there’s a new look and a lot of new features. I’ll go over some of them with you now.

First, in the right column:

  • Recent Posts and Articles A – Z  You’ll find here first a list of the ten most recent posts, followed by a list of all Cinedrome posts, arranged alphabetically by the title of the post (and here’s a hint in case you haven’t noticed: Posts that begin with the articles “A” and “The” are listed in the A’s and T’s, respectively). You may find that you’d like to revisit a post on this or that movie or personality but can’t recall the title; in that case, you can use…
  • Search  If you’ve spent much time at all on line, I’m sure you have a pretty good idea of how this feature works. This replaces the old Cinedrome Index: NAMES and Cinedrome Index: TITLES, which were beginning to get pretty cumbersome.

 

And up top:

  • About the Author  A few brief words about Yours Truly.
  • Series  As longtime readers of Cinedrome no doubt know, I’ve often found occasion to post at length on a given subject. Under this heading you’ll find a number of these series (and the number will no doubt grow in the future), including my 14-part retrospective on the career of Shirley Temple; my award-winning history of the making and editing of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons; my histories of Cinerama and the screen versions of George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy; and my ongoing retrospective on the career of director Henry Hathaway (which I will soon be adding to with a post on one of Hathaway’s best pictures of the 1950s, one that is lamentably unavailable on video in the U.S.). Clicking on one of these series titles will take you to all of the series parts on a single page for your convenience. The series page does not include any comments that readers may have left; to read those, simply click on the title of any part and you’ll be taken to just that post, comments and all.
  • Jim’s Fiction  It’s true; I write fiction too. At present the only entry under this heading is my 2010 post “Items from the Scrapbook of Cosmo Brown” (yes, the cat’s out of the bag: I made that all up), but I’ll be adding to it from time to time. Some things will be movie-related, some won’t.

 

In addition to these, there’s my Links and Resources page, imported from before, and a Contact page for info on how to get in touch with me; it’s always a pleasure to hear from any and all of you.

I’m grateful to my good friend Jean Black at My Big Fat Sites for bringing all this to fruition. I hope you like the new Cinedrome; feel free to look around, make yourself comfortable, and come back often.

Coming up next – Clara Talks!

Cinevent 2016, Concluded

Sunday, the last day of Cinevent 2016, got off to a vivacious start with a double feature showcasing that most utterly, charmingly, irresistibly delightful of movie stars, Clara Bow. Only the persistent prejudice against silent movies keeps Clara Bow from her rightful place among the movies’ greatest stars — in the minds of the general public, that is; true movie buffs know her worth. Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe, at the height of their careers, were never as popular or as sexy as Clara. But Greta and Marilyn are enshrined in the Temple of Screen Immortals, even to people who know them only by name, while the name of Clara Bow is something out of a quaint, distant, forgotten prehistory, like Nell Gwyn or Minnie Maddern Fiske.

This is unfair. To see Clara Bow at her best — in Mantrap (1926), or in It or Wings (both ’27) — is to see someone who is still as animated and as immediately alluring as she was the day she reported to the set. Everybody who ever worked with Clara spoke of her ever after with a wistful smile. More to the point, the camera loved her as it has loved few other women who ever stood in front of one.

She’s been the victim, perhaps, of the legend that her atrocious Brooklyn accent doomed her when sound came in. Not so. While it’s true that the microphone terrified her at first, she rolled with the punch and gamely soldiered on. In her 11-year career she appeared in 56 features, and 11 of them were talkies. There was nothing wrong with her voice, any more than there was with Jean Harlow’s (the two women’s careers overlapped by a few years). Clara’s sound pictures did reasonably well at the box office, though it’s true, not as well as her silents. But that’s not because Clara was talking now. The simple truth is that her day was passing, while Jean Harlow’s was coming on.

I’ll save any further thoughts for another day. For now, let’s turn to Clara’s Sunday double bill in Columbus.

Saturday Night Kid LC02First came The Saturday Night Kid (1929), based on Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em, a 1926 play by George Abbott and John V.A. Weaver. The play was filmed silent (also in ’26) under its original title (and screened at Cinevent in 2010), with Evelyn Brent and Louise Brooks playing Mame and Janie Walsh, two sisters who work together at a big department store. Mame is the older, more responsible one, forever mother-henning her hedonistic, troublemaking kid sister Janie. For this talkie remake, Clara played the slightly renamed Mayme and Jean Arthur was Janie (though she was in fact five years older than Clara). Janie is a hell-raiser and borderline sociopath, playing the ponies with the store empoyees’ charity fund, losing it, then blaming Mayme for the embezzlement — and even trying to steal Mayme’s boyfriend (James Hall). Clara wasn’t looking her best (she was, just this once, a trifle overweight and a bit frowzy), but the picture was a hit in 1929 and it still plays well; when Mayme finally got fed up and slapped Janie clear across their bedroom, applause rippled through the Cinevent audience.

Next, Kid Boots (1926) was one of those oddities, a silent movie based (albeit loosely) on a Broadway musical comedy produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. Ziegfeld’s star Eddie Cantor made his screen debut here, playing a man hired to flirt with a rich man’s gold-digging wife and give the husband grounds for divorce. At a mountain resort, Eddie hits it off with the swimming instructor — but their romance proceeds awkwardly because every time she sees him he’s wooing somebody else. Since Eddie couldn’t resort to song-and-dance, he was teamed with Clara (as the swimming instructor) for box-office insurance. It was a felicitous pairing. The two got along famously; Eddie helped Clara with her comic timing and she helped him learn how to act for the camera, and their rapport and mutual affection still come through on the screen.

Parson of Panamint poster02aAfter lunch there was a new wrinkle this year. They called it the Audience Choice Picture: Earlier in the year, on the Cinevent Web site, those of us planning to attend were polled as to which of four titles we’d like to see screened in this slot. I can’t remember what the four choices were, nor which one I voted for, but we wound up with The Parson of Panamint (1941), from a story by Peter B. Kyne. Like Kyne’s perennially popular The Three Godfathers, the story was a parable. Charlie Ruggles (in a change-of-pace straight dramatic role) plays the mayor of the rough-and-tumble mining town of Panamint, California. The mayor goes to the big city of San Francisco to hire a preacher for his town’s new church, and that’s where he finds the Rev. Philip Pharo (Phillip Terry) — not in a church, but taking the mayor’s part in a saloon fight. The Rev. Mr. Pharo accepts the job and rides back with the mayor to his new congregation.
 
At first things go well between the parson and the townspeople. But as it becomes clear to them that he takes the Christian doctrine of “love thy neighbor” quite seriously, his innate goodness begins to make people uncomfortable — plus, his concern for the welfare of the town’s gold miners incurs the enmity of the self-styled leaders of the community, who set about stirring up public outrage against him. The script by Adrian Scott and Harold Shumate, and Kyne’s original story, bore obvious parallels to the life of Jesus (although — spoiler alert! — in the movie things work out rather better for the Parson of Panamint than they did for the Carpenter of Nazareth). The picture garnered good reviews but poor box office; today it’s an unusual little jewel of a movie, marred only by a too-bland performance by Phillip Terry as the parson. But Terry was more than compensated for by others in the cast, especially Ruggles and Ellen Drew as a local saloon girl (the movie’s equivalent of Mary Magdalene).
 
The Parson of Panamint was the final highlight of this year’s Cinevent, but the weekend didn’t exactly end with a whimper. The last two features were The Tomboy (1924), a rural romance starring the now-forgotten silent comedienne Dorothy Devore (just the kind of scheduling Cinevent excels at, spotlighting former stars for whom there’s no market on video but who deserve to be remembered); and King of Alcatraz (1938) a marvelously tight little Paramount B (running a lightning 68 min.) starring Lloyd Nolan and Robert Preston as frenemy wireless operators on a tramp steamer matching wits with an escaped crime kingpin (J. Carrol Naish) who hijacks their ship in mid-Pacific.
 
And so it was at 5:48 p.m. on Sunday, June 5, 2016, that the 48th Annual Cinevent Classic Movie Convention came to a close. I’ve posted on it in some detail, as I have in the past, because movie buffs everywhere should know about it and be encouraged to take it in. I haven’t even touched on the dealers’ rooms this year, though I once again acquired my share of books, videos, and memorabilia (some of which will no doubt find its way here from time to time).
 
As film festivals go, Cinevent is hard to beat. Financially, it’s just about the bargain of the century: a pass for the entire weekend goes for less than you’d pay for a single screening at some classic film festivals. But it’s more than that. Cinevent is a get-together of friends; historian and bestselling biographer Scott Eyman calls it “the most relaxed, friendly, unpretentious, accessible and enjoyable of the Cinephile Conventions.” I hope to see you all there one of these years. Be sure to say hello.
 

Afterword

 
There are changes afoot here at Cinedrome. That’s why this series on Cinevent 2016 has taken longer than I would have liked: I’ve been working two blogs, in a way, putting together these posts on the one hand, while working on the other hand with my friend Jean at My Big Fat Sites to develop a new and (I hope) improved Cinedrome. This will be the last of my posts here on Blogspot, though I’ll update this afterword with my new Web address when it’s ready to be seen.
 
And oh yes, all previous posts will still be available (maybe, if plans work out, even more so) at Cinedrome’s new location.
 

Cinevent 2016, Part 4

Day 3

Another regular — and eagerly anticipated — feature of Cinevent is the Saturday morning cartoon program, compiled and curated by animation maven Stewart McKissick. This year the bill included a specimen from each of the major cartoon studios of the 1930s through ’50s — Disney, Warner Bros., MGM, Fleischer, UPA, etc. The clear highlight of the morning was MGM’s Magical Maestro (1952) by the great Tex Avery, in which a spurned vaudeville magician wreaks vengeance by disrupting an operatic recital by “the Great Poochini” (as the poster shows, the cartoon is populated by dogs). It’s a wild and zany ride that anticipates (may even have inspired) Chuck Jones’s Duck Amuck over at Warners the following year, and it’s better seen than described.

Fortunately, that can be arranged. Click here to see the cartoon complete from beginning to end — including a few fleeting (and fairly harmless) seconds of non-p.c. ethnic humor. It’s only six-and-a-half minutes, and worth the side trip. I’ll wait till you get back. (NOTE: The cartoon is on a Romanian-language Web site and is preceded by a commercial for one product or another. Look for a white “X” in the top right corner of the frame or the word “Inchide” [“skip”] in the bottom right; click on either of those and it’ll go directly to the cartoon.)

The cartoon program was followed by Houdini (1953), a purported biopic starring a youthful Tony Curtis and then-wife Janet Leigh as the legendary escapologist and his wife Bess. A big hit in 1953, the picture was a mainstay of Saturday afternoon kiddie matinees when I was going to them — I remember seeing it three or four times — and I’ve always had a soft spot for it. There was, of course, a magician and escape artist (born Erik Weisz) who billed himself as Harry Houdini, and his wife Wilhelmina Beatrice was known as Bess; aside from that, the movie is arrant fiction from first frame to last — but it’s as entertaining as it is made-up. Seeing it in Columbus this year — especially right after a whole slew of cartoons — made me feel seven years old again.

The afternoon was devoted to two silent programs: Douglas Fairbanks in His Picture in the Papers (1916), followed by a selection of rarely seen comedy shorts, also from 1916, consisting of The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, starring Doug Fairbanks again as a detective named (get this) Coke Ennyday (a spoof on the name of Craig Kennedy, a character created by Arthur B. Reeve in 1910 and popular in magazine fiction until Reeve’s death in 1936); An Angelic Attitude, directed by and starring Tom Mix, already seven years into his movie career and poised on the brink of superstardom; and A Scoundrel’s Toll, a Mack Sennett short starring Raymond Griffith. (Griffith would be a mid-level comedy star throughout the 1920s, but his badly damaged vocal cords would relegate him to behind-the-camera work writing and producing, and quite successfully, once talkies came in.)
 
x-defaultThis was followed by Tim McCoy in Law Beyond the Range (1935), an unpretentious and quite entertaining B western from Columbia. Tim McCoy was one of those interesting characters who sort of backed into movies because making movies was fun and he himself was fairly comfortable in front of  camera. Born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1891, he became fascinated with the Wild West as a student in college; he dropped out and resettled in Wyoming, where he became a ranch hand and expert horseman. After serving in World War I (he rose to the rank of colonel and later, in his movie career, was sometimes billed as Col. Tim McCoy), he was appointed adjutant general of the Wyoming National Guard. In that capacity he worked diplomatically and well with Wyoming’s native Arapaho and Shoshone tribes, and in 1922, when Paramount came to Wyoming to film their epic The Covered Wagon, McCoy served as liaison between the company and several hundred Indian extras. That gave him the bug. He resigned his commission and cried “Westward ho!” once again, settling in Hollywood, where he worked steadily through the 1940s, then tapered off into retirement, making his last appearance in Requiem for a Gunfighter in 1965.
 
In Law Beyond the Range McCoy played a Texas Ranger who leaves the force to take over an old friend and mentor’s crusading newspaper in a neighboring town. Arriving in town shortly after his editor friend’s death, he carries on the paper’s crusade against the crime boss who is running the town (Guy Usher). In the end he brings down the bad guy, but not because the pen is mightier than the sword; in fact it takes a blazing shootout that fills the local saloon with a dense cloud of gunsmoke, a rip-roaring climax that Col. Tim’s 1935 fans had no doubt been waiting for all along. At the final fadeout he has not only cleaned up the town but cleared an old friend (Robert Allen) of a bogus murder charge and won the heart of the late editor’s daughter (Billie Seward).
 
California-Straight-Ahead-WAfter dinner came of two of the highlights of the whole weekend — both, as it happened, from Universal. First was California Straight Ahead (1937). I here reproduce the title card from the movie’s credits, rather than a poster or lobby card, to make a point: It’s 1937, two years before Stagecoach, and John Wayne is billed above the title. And not in a B western from Monogram or Republic, but in one of six pictures he made at Universal (none of them westerns) before returning to the saddle at Republic. It’s still a B picture, of course; it would take John Ford to promote the Duke out of B’s once and for all. But California Straight Ahead has a better-than-B professional gloss to it; with Universal’s backlot and production infrastructure a few dollars could go a lot farther than they could on some location ranch up in the San Fernando Valley.
 
Wayne plays a partner in a struggling Chicago trucking firm, trying to make a go of his little two-truck operation against sometimes unscrupulous opposition from other truckers and railroads (he faces some unsporting competition for the affections of the fetching Louise Latimer too). The story climaxes in a cross-country race between Wayne’s convoy of big-rigs and an express train, both seeking to deliver a shipment of airplane parts to the Port of Los Angeles to be loaded on a ship and dispatched across the Pacific before a general strike closes the port. With a smart script by W. Scott Darling and lickety-split direction by Arthur Lubin, the picture makes for an enjoyable 67 minutes.

 

In his introduction to the screening, Wayne biographer Scott Eyman told us that Wayne regarded his six-picture foray at Universal as a mistake; it had failed to take him out of the “juvenile ghetto” of Saturday afternoon B westerns, and when it was over he found himself back at Square One in Republic horse operas — without his former momentum and unsure when, or if ever, he could work his way out of them. (He couldn’t know, of course, that his big break was just around the corner.) I quote Scott at length on California Straight Ahead and the Duke’s five other Universal B’s: “This is a good movie; they are all good, solid movies. They’re better, frankly, I think, than the Republic westerns he’d been making, because the technicians are a little bit better, the scripts are a little bit better, and the production schedules a little bit longer, and you can get more of where he’s not just riding and roping and slugging people. He actually gets a chance to do a little acting in these movies. And as you’ll see, he’s getting better and better. By 1937, and finishing up this series of pictures, he’s ready. He’s ready for John Ford, he’s ready for the Big Time.”

Crazy-House-poster01WAnd then came the deluge, again courtesy of Universal Pictures. The title of this onslaught was Crazy House, and the leading inmates of the loony bin were two slap-happy vaudevillians named Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. How do you describe these two to someone who’s never seen them? In my last post I called them the Monty Python of the 1940s, but the truth is, Olsen and Johnson made Monty Python look like a Sunday afternoon game of whist between Oscar Wilde and James MacNeill Whistler.
 
John Sigvard “Ole” Olsen and Harold Ogden “Chic” Johnson first teamed up in 1914 as members of a more or less straight musical vaudeville quartet. Their personalities and wacky senses of humor clicked, and they eventually morphed into a madcap improvisational comedy act, with neither of them playing the customary straight man. Eventually they wound up on radio in “The Padded Cell of the Air”, a segment of NBC’s Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, hosted by crooner Rudy Vallee. The rather stodgy Vallee evidently left Olsen and Johnson pretty much to their own devices, and the team’s wild act was free-wheeling and utterly unpredictable. They reached their apotheosis in 1938 with the Broadway musical comedy revue Hellzapoppin, whose title remains a byword for insanely corny, anything-for-a-laugh comedy. It was a show where nobody ever knew what was going to happen next. And I don’t mean just the audience — I mean the stagehands, the orchestra and the other performers. Hellzapoppin ran for over three years — 1,404 performances, and it was never the same experience twice.
 
In 1941 Universal induced Olsen and Johnson to put the show on film (as Hellzapoppin’, adding the apostrophe). It might have seemed like a fool’s errand, and Universal hedged their bets by forcing the insertion of a conventional romantic subplot, but the movie clicked. It was screened at last year’s Cinevent and stole the whole weekend, as hilarious as ever.
 
And so it was this year with Crazy House, Olsen and Johnson’s follow-up movie two years later. It begins with Olsen and Johnson staging their own triumphant return parade down Hollywood Boulevard, with the cry preceding them: “Olsen and Johnson are coming!”, while everyone from studio bigwigs to hairdressers and carpenters flies into a panic. (On one soundstage Basil Rathbone tells Nigel Bruce of the dire devastation in store for them all when the two comics arrive. “How do you know all that?” Bruce asks. “I’m Sherlock Holmes,” snaps Rathbone. “I know everything.”) The boys show up to find the Universal lot deserted and barricaded against them. Unfazed, they resolve to produce their next movie themselves.
 
Let’s leave it at that, shall we? Crazy House goes on in that vein for a lightning 80 minutes, throwing jokes so fast you miss every third one because you’re still laughing at the first two. Olsen and Johnson’s governing principle was that a joke not good enough to use once might be bad enough to use five times, and it still works; O&J’s influence can be seen not only in Monty Python but elsewhere, including Laugh-In in the 1960s and Jim Henson’s original Muppet Show 20 years after that.
 
After the boisterous delirium of Crazy House anything would have been an anticlimax, so 1927’s silent The Fighting Eagle started off at a disadvantage. Still, it was an engaging, slightly tongue-in-cheek swashbuckler with Rod La Rocque (such a perfectly Hollywood name, and yet it was his own) swaggering grandly as a braggart popinjay French soldier engaging in swordplay, intrigue and romance (with countess Phyllis Haver, the movies’ original Roxie Hart in Chicago) in the days of the Emperor Napoleon.
 
And finally, another midnight snack: The Monkey’s Paw, a low-budget 1948 British thriller with a good but uniformly unfamiliar cast, adapted from the classic short story by W.W. Jacobs. If you haven’t read the story, you should; give yourself a sleepless night or two. It concerns the eponymous, mummified simian extremity, a talisman with the power to grant three wishes. But this monkey’s paw is no rabbit’s foot; it’s the ultimate illustration of be-careful-what-you-wish-for: In a touch not in the original story but added for the movie, one woman wishes to be free of her boring, alcoholic husband; her freedom is granted to her when he shoots her dead.
 
Jacobs’s story is a vivid one, but short, and the
script by Barbara Toy and director Norman
Lee fills it out without diluting its sinister
spirit — as that flashback scene with the bored
wife makes clear. And so it was, at 2:00 that
Sunday morning, after the monkey’s paw had
wrought its dark magic on the hapless
Trelawne family (played by Milton Rosmer,
Megs Jenkins and Eric Micklewood), that
those hardy night owls among us were
finally trundled off to our rooms, our lights,
and the comforting drone of an all-night
television…
 
To be concluded…