Cinevent 2017 – No. 49 and Counting, Part 4

Day 4 – Sunday

There were a couple of pictures on the last day of Cinevent that I wish I could report on, but alas, I didn’t see them. First, and most promising, was Carmen (1918), one of several silent version of Bizet’s opera — or, more accurately, of Prosper Mérimée’s original novella, which by 1915 was safely in the public domain, whereas the opera was still under copyright. No matter, it was the popularity of the opera that led to duelling Carmens in 1915, one directed by Cecil B. DeMille with Geraldine Farrar for Paramount, the other by Raoul Walsh with Theda Bara over at Fox. And it led to this German version, directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Pola Negri, released in December 1918, just a month after the Armistice that ended World War I. It didn’t find a Stateside distributor until 1921, when First National released it as Gypsy Blood (the title Carmen being deemed too easily confused with its predecessors). The picture was successful enough (“This Negri is amazing,” said Variety) to bring both Negri and director Lubitsch to Hollywood with American contracts. Lubitsch prospered, Negri not so much; her brash impulsiveness wound up annoying and alienating people, eventually sending her back to Germany until the rise of Hitler drove her once again to the U.S. Her career never really recovered. Anyhow, that was the picture that led off Day 4, and I’m sorry I missed it. God only knows when I’ll get another chance. (A complete German version has recently surfaced, without the cuts First National imposed for U.S. release, but hasn’t become widely available; Cinevent showed the First National edition.)

The other one I’m sorry I missed was The Trial of Vivienne Ware (1932), an early example of entertainment synergy — a movie based on a popular radio serial, and one that (on radio) employed a sort of primitive audience participation, with listeners making story suggestions even as the program was playing on their radio sets. The movie, which has Joan Bennett in the title role of a socialite on trial for killing her two-timing fiancé and defended by ex-beau Donald Cook, is famous for its breakneck pace (it runs only 56 minutes) and dizzy editing, with whip-pans marking transitions from scene to scene.

One that I did see, the second feature of the morning, was The Old Corral (1936), an early Republic western with singing star Gene Autry — and all I can say is I wish it had been as good as this poster makes it look. Republic — only a year old in 1936 but already releasing its 49th picture — hadn’t yet mastered the craft of cranking out low-budget westerns, and Autry wasn’t yet as comfortable on camera as he would eventually become. The picture is mainly interesting for two things: (1) the presence of the singing group Sons of the Pioneers, particularly a young man born Leonard Slye but going by the name of Dick Weston; he would eventually be known as Roy Rogers and would outclass Gene Autry on every level, even to the extent of doing some of his own stunts (Autry, in this one, is only too obviously doubled every time he sets down his guitar); and (2) Autry’s leading lady, a rather dowdy-looking miss named Hope Manning; later, in the 1940s, she would get a glamourous blonde makeover and a name change at Warner Bros. As Irene Manning, she would make her modest mark in such movies as Yankee Doodle Dandy (’42), The Desert Song (’43) and The Doughgirls (’44) before transitioning to television and retiring from showbiz in the mid-’50s. Comparing her here with her later work is a dramatic illustration of how the resources of a major studio could work wonders for a performer.

The highlight of the day for me was the penultimate screening of the entire weekend: The Magic Box (1951), the biography of William Friese-Greene, a controversial figure in early film history (either neglected pioneer or dillettante and nuisance, depending on your viewpoint). And here I’ll hand you over to the notes that I contributed to this year’s Cinevent program booklet (slightly expanded here):

The exact contribution of William Friese-Greene to motion picture history remains a subject of controversy to this day. Born William Green in 1855 (later hyphenating his name with that of his first wife, Helena Friese, and adding the final “e” for good measure), he was an English portrait photographer who was bitten by the moving picture bug sometime in the mid-1880s. A tireless tinkerer and experimenter with a terrible head for business, he took out quite a number of patents, at least on paper, but always seemed to be behind the curve when it came to actually developing a movie camera of his own. The first film historian, Terry Ramsaye, dismissed Friese-Greene as a “personality of more interest than importance” in his landmark 1926 history A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture Through 1925. When The Magic Box, the British film industry’s reverent biopic of Friese-Greene, appeared a quarter-century later, Ramsaye was still around, and he didn’t hesitate to double down in the pages of Films in Review (Aug.-Sep. ’51), reiterating that “Friese-Greene was not an important figure in the history of the cinema.”

Still, the man has had his defenders, including Anglo-Canadian critic Gerald Pratley (who engaged in a point/counterpoint duel with Ramsaye in that same issue of FIR), and biographer Ray Allister, whose 1948 book Friese-Greene; Close-Up of an Inventor served as the basis for The Magic Box.

The Magic Box was part of the British film industry’s contribution to the Festival of Britain (hence the designation “The Festival Film Production” on the lobby card above). This was a vast array of exhibits and scientific and cultural events during the summer of 1951, ostensibly commemorating the centennial of the Crystal Palace Exposition of 1851, but really aimed at bucking up British morale and self-confidence after the devastation of World War II, and pointing the way to a brighter and more prosperous future. Part of the celebration included memorializing the British Empire’s glittering past, and what better way to do that than by a tribute to Friese-Greene, whom Allister extolled as the shamefully forgotten “true inventor” of motion pictures?

Needless to say, Eric Ambler’s script for The Magic Box followed Allister’s line faithfully, albeit with liberal doses of fiction, and studiously avoiding any specific claims as to exactly when Friese-Greene accomplished this feat. Also, Ambler tactfully passed over some inconvenient events in Friese-Greene’s life – for example, a brief stint in prison in 1891 for borrowing money illegally while still in undischarged bankruptcy; and a trip to America in the early 1910s to testify against the Edison Patents Trust, where he was found so unreliable, and so bereft of documents to back up his claims, that the independent producers didn’t dare put him on the stand. On the other hand, Ambler and director John Boulting faithfully reproduced Friese-Greene’s sad end: Attending a meeting of cinema distributors in London in 1921, he rose to speak, but was rambling, incoherent and barely audible, and had to be gently escorted back to his seat. He may have already been suffering his final medical event – heart attack, stroke, or cerebral hemorrhage – because just a few minutes later he fell over dead.

Whatever The Magic Box’s value as history, it’s a wonderful piece of entertainment. It draws a vivid picture of Victorian and Edwardian England, lusciously photographed by Jack Cardiff in that peerless British Technicolor (the print we’re showing isn’t IB Tech, alas, but we defy you to tell the difference).

And what a cast! Given the circumstances – cinema history, Festival of Britain and all that – working on this picture was practically a patriotic duty, and virtually the entire British acting profession showed up to do their bit. In fact, it’s easier to name people who aren’t in it than those who are: don’t look for Alec Guinness, John Mills, Noël Coward, Alastair Sim, John Gielgud, Charles Laughton, Ralph Richardson, Edith Evans, Rex Harrison, Joan Greenwood, James Mason, or Robert Newton. Otherwise, you name ’em, they’re probably here somewhere, in some cases without uttering a word.

One such cameo is contributed by Laurence Olivier in what has been recognized, in 1951 and ever since, as the best scene in the picture. Olivier plays a London policeman whom Friese-Greene drags off the street into his laboratory in the dead of night to witness his invention. As the bemused officer stares at the flickering image on Friese-Greene’s improvised screen, Olivier’s face shows what nobody living today — and precious few even in 1951 — can imagine: the absolutely gobsmacking amazement of seeing a photograph actually move right before his startled eyes. When the demonstration is over, the bobbie is still speechless; all he can do is stammer, “You must be a very happy man, Mr. Friese-Greene.” The scene is straight out of Ray Allister’s fanciful biography, and it’s almost certainly apocryphal. Friese-Greene spent years trying to prove his claim; why did he never find that copper to back him up? Nevertheless, the scene encapsulates the primal power of movies; at that moment, the title The Magic Box makes perfect sense.

Front and center in this once-in-a-lifetime cast, playing Friese-Greene, is the wonderful Robert Donat, whose fragile health and preference for the stage kept him from making as many movies as most of us would like. The Magic Box was in fact nearly his last appearance on screen – he would make only two more in the seven years left to him, before his chronic asthma and a brain tumor carried him off at age 53 – and it may be his last great performance. As Friese-Greene, he is perfectly cast: the physical resemblance is reasonably close, but the clincher is that amazing, melodic voice of his – perfectly expressive of this dreamy, unworldly character, the indefatigable experimenter who lets things like food and shelter for his family suffer in the face of his obsession with recording the moving image, and who, according to his second wife (as quoted in the movie), “wasn’t meant to have to worry about other people.”

Variety’s “Myro” reviewed The Magic Box on Sept. 26, 1951 during the waning days of the Festival of Britain, mentioning (of course) its “Who’s Who” cast and calling it “a standout contribution by the film industry here” to the Festival. It was another year before the picture crossed the Pond to New York, where the Times’ Bosley Crowther called it “as pretty a period piece as any you’ll see, full of the most exquisite little vignettes of Victorian England and Victorian ways and some highly fascinating indications of early experiments with film.” Meanwhile, across town at The New Yorker, John McCarten yawned, “It’s a sentimental affair,” but allowed, “I imagine you’ll find some diversion in this movie.”

Actually, you’ll find quite a bit.

End of program notes, back to Cinedrome post. The weekend drew to a close on Sunday evening with The Great Hospital Mystery (1937), a nifty little B whodunit from 20th Century Fox based on a short story by the prolific Mignon G. Eberhart and starring Jane Darwell as amateur sleuth Nurse Sarah Keats. (Actually, Eberhart’s character was named “Keate”. In 1935 Aline McMahon had played her under that name for Warner Bros. in While the Patient Slept, and in 1938, again at Warners’, Ann Sheridan would do it twice more [The Patient in Room 18 and Mystery House]. But this year, at Fox, she was “Keats”.) This one provided a good mystery, some well-placed comedy, a strong supporting cast (Sig Ruman, Sally Blane, Joan Davis, William Demarest) and a rare lead turn by supporting-actress powerhouse Darwell.

And there it is friends, my highlight-hopping rundown of this year’s Cinevent. Next year will be Cinevent’s Golden Anniversary, and I urge all my readers to plan on attending — especially if you live within driving distance of Columbus, Ohio, but even if you have to spring for airfare to get there. Believe me, it just possibly gives you the best bang for your buck of any classic-film festival in the world. And next year being the 50th, I’ll bet that the planners will have a lot of great things in store. Keep an eye on the Cinevent Web site as Memorial Day 2018 draws near, and mark your calendars now.

 

Cinevent 2017 — No. 49 and Counting, Part 3

Day 3 — Saturday

Saturday morning, of course, is Cartoon Day at Cinevent — or at least it has been for the 20 years I’ve been going. This year was, in fact, the 28th annual animation program, once again assembled and curated by Stewart McKissick, whose depth of knowledge is as priceless as the toons he shows. This year the theme, insofar as there was one, was (I guess you could say) “Maiden Voyages” — that is, none of the ten cartoons on the program had ever played Cinevent before.

As you might expect, this made for quite a mixed bag: Neptune Nonsense (1936), a Felix the Cat cartoon (in Technicolor for a change) in which Felix gets in trouble with King Neptune when he tries to “fishnap” a companion for his lonely goldfish at home; Daffy Duck in Hollywood (1938), where the duck at his daffiest crashes the gates at Warner Bros. and revolutionizes the movie business; Ground Hog Play, a Casper the Friendly Ghost toon from 1956 (personally, I could always take but would prefer to leave Casper alone); and so on.

But I want to focus on one in particular: Musical Memories (1935), one of Max and Dave Fleischer’s two-color Technicolor pictures (at the time Disney had an exclusive contract to use the perfected three-strip Tech). The interest in this one (besides the color) is how it showcases Fleischer’s “setback” process. Like Disney’s multiplane camera (and developed at roughly the same time), the setback was designed to add dimensionality and visual interest to animation. Here’s an illustration of how it worked. Moving from right to left, you can see the camera (along with its control mechanism), then the central frame where the animation cels would be mounted (with attendant light fixtures), and finally the miniature three-dimensional set (also well-lit) that served as a background to the animated characters — hence the term “setback”. The set would be on a turntable that could be rotated as the characters “walked” back and forth on it. Sometimes the set would be painted with the same paints as the cel characters, sometimes with more realistic pigments, but either way it lent a striking three-dimensional look to Fleischer’s cartoons (a pity, says I, that Fleischer didn’t use the setback camera in his Superman series).

This 3-D effect was particularly apt in Musical Memories, since the premise was a sweet old couple in rocking chairs who “forget the swiftly moving tempos of the present” by dusting off their old stereopticon viewer while the soundtrack blooms with popular songs of their Gay Nineties youth — “I Wandered Today to the Hill, Maggie”, “Sidewalks of New York”, “Little Annie Rooney”, “After the Ball” and so on. It’s a charming variation on Fleischer’s follow-the-bouncing-ball cartoons, and if you know the songs I’ll bet you’ll find yourself humming along, if only in your head:

 

Last year at Cinevent, the Saturday animation program was followed by producer George Pal’s Houdini (1953) with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, which took me back to my childhood and the kiddie matinees at the Stamm Theatre in Antioch, Calif. There was more than one Saturday, and probably more than two, when an hour-and-a-half of cartoons was followed by Houdini. Well, danged if I didn’t get exactly that same sense of déjà vu this year — another passel of cartoons, another George Pal. This time it was When Worlds Collide (1951), from the 1932 Edwin Balmer/Philip Wylie novel about two rogue planets on a collision course with Earth, and the desperate efforts to build a spaceship to transport a sampling of humanity to one of the (apparently habitable) planets before the home world is obliterated.

When Worlds Collide still has its cult following, but the truth is, of George Pal’s trilogy of 1950s sci-fi classics — Destination Moon (1950), WWC, and The War of the Worlds (1953) — this one has aged the least gracefully. Part of the reason is the leading man, Richard Derr, who bears a disconcerting resemblance to Danny Kaye, but with a veneer of off-putting smarm — a combination that helped keep his long career from ever really going anyplace. Partly it’s the dated science, and partly the dated fiction, with Sidney Boehm’s Bible-thumping script hitting us over the head with its Noah’s Ark analogies. And I suppose it doesn’t help that when the survivors of Earth step off their rocket ship they seem to have landed in the Pastoral Symphony set from Walt Disney’s Fantasia. For all that, though, the movie’s Oscar-winning special effects still deliver the goods, and 1950s nostalgia can cover a multitude of sins — especially when a print gleams with that gorgeous Paramount Technicolor, as this one did.

(Now, while I’m at it, if any of the Cinevent movers and shakers happen to be reading this, I’d like to put in a request. Let’s keep this cartoons-and-a-George-Pal-feature business going for one more year. Next year, Cinevent’s 50th, why not follow the Saturday animation program with The War of the Worlds? It’s not only Pal’s undeniable masterpiece, it’s one of the most beautifully-photographed movies of the entire decade. Plus, it’ll allow me one more nostalgia trip back to the kiddie matinees of my youth.)

After the lunch break I had a chance to plug one of those gaps in my movie experience that has always kind of bugged me: I finally got to see a Will Hay movie, The Ghost of St. Michael’s (1941).

Will Hay is a name that mean absolutely nothing to Americans, but Britons of a certain age remember him with warmth and affection. After a career in British music halls playing a pompous, incompetent schoolmaster, he transferred the character to movies — not always a schoolmaster and not always with the same name, but the pompousness and incompetence remained constant. He made only 18 features before his untimely death (age 60) in 1949, but while he lasted he was one of the most popular stars in British pictures (he placed third behind George Formby and Gracie Fields). In the 1988 edition of The Filmgoer’s Companion author Leslie Halliwell appointed Hay to Halliwell’s Hall of Fame “For developing an unforgettable comic persona which lives in the memory independently of his films; and for persuading us to root for that character despite its basically unsympathetic nature.”

Judging just from The Ghost of St. Michael’s, I suspect that that “basically unsympathetic nature” business was strictly pro forma; Halliwell finds him unsympathetic because he should find him unsympathetic. But Will Lamb — the name Hay’s blustering schoolteacher takes this time around — is almost entirely likeable, and funny besides. The plot has to do with a boys’ school evacuated during the Blitz to a reputedly haunted castle on the Isle of Skye,  the sound of ghostly bagpipes heralding a couple of mysterious deaths, and (spoiler alert!) the workings of a German spy lurking in the castle — who nevertheless proves to be no match for Master Lamb, his equally dim sidekick (Claude Hulbert) and a precocious student (Charles Hawtrey), who together manage to unravel the picture’s neat little mystery in fairly short order and very funny fashion.

The Ghost of St. Michael’s made for an auspicious introduction to the redoubtable Mr. Hay, and I was able to score a DVD of the picture in the Cinevent Dealers’ Room, along with three other titles: Boys Will Be Boys (1935), Where There’s a Will (’36) and Ask a Policeman (’39). Haven’t checked out any of those yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

And oh, by the way: Will Hay wasn’t nearly as dimwitted as the character he created on the music hall stage and British screens. He became fluent in French, Italian and German before he was out of his teens, and he was a respected amateur astronomer and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, having discovered a great white spot on the planet Saturn in 1933. The asteroid 3125 Hay was named in his honor.

Next came The Square Deal Man (1917), with William S. Hart as a gambler named Jack O’Diamonds, reformed by a saintly preacher and (particularly) his own admiration for a good woman (Mary McIvor), with an adorable little orphan (Mary Jane Irving) thrown in for good measure. This was followed by Clancy Street Boys (1943), a comedy programmer from Poverty Row’s Monogram Pictures starring Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and Bobby Jordan, billed here as the East Side Kids, midway through their transition from the Dead End Kids to the Bowery Boys. Gorcey’s daughter, Brandy Gorcey Ziesemer, was there in Columbus to introduce the picture and, with author Leonard Getz, to sign copies of From Broadway to the Bowery: A History and Filmography of the Dead End Kids, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids and Bowery Boys Films, with Cast Biographies.

Also in Columbus for book signings, by the way, were Cinevent regular Scott Eyman (I picked up a copy of his 1990 Mary Pickford biography and his latest book with Robert Wagner, I Loved Her in the Movies: Memories of Hollywood’s Legendary Actresses); Richard Barrios (A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film and Dangerous Rhythms: Why Movie Musicals Matter); Robert Matzen (Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe); and John McElwee  (The Art of Selling Movies, his worthy follow-up to Showmen, Sell It Hot!).

 

But back to the film program. In my last post I mentioned a near-lost Laurel and Hardy classic. This was The Battle of the Century (1927), Hal Roach’s second teaming of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and the one that set the mold for The Boys (Putting Pants on Philip stars Laurel and Hardy, but it’s not really a Laurel and Hardy film in the sense we understand today). This is the short with the famous pie fight, as illustrated on this poster. The title, however, refers not to that but to the first reel of the picture, which consists of a boxing match pitting puny prizefighter Stan agains a mountainous opponent named Thunder-Clap Callahan (Noah Young), with Ollie as his manager — and the outcome of the bout being pretty much what you’d expect. It’s only later that Ollie, in an effort to make Stan slip on a banana peel to collect the insurance on him, inadvertently sets a trap for pie delivery man Charlie Hall — and the outcome of that is also pretty much what you’d expect.

For years — decades — all that survived of The Battle of the Century was the pie fight, and only a few minutes of that, preserved by producer Robert Youngson in his compilation The Golden Age of Comedy (1957). As luck would have it, though, most of Reel 1 surfaced in the 1970s, while a complete Reel 2 finally turned up in 2016 (and kudos to historian/collector Jon Mirsalis for finding and sharing it). So what we have now, and what we saw in Columbus, is complete (minus a couple of minutes that seem lost for good) for the first time in 90 years.

 

Another comedy duo, Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, were back again at Cinevent, after Helzapoppin’ (1941) in 2015 and Crazy House (’43) last year. This year it was Olsen and Johnson’s next picture, Ghost Catchers (’44). For once, an O&J picture had an actual plot — at least, about as much plot as their madcap antics would allow. Olsen and Johnson (using their own names) played nightclub owners who volunteer to help neighbors Walter Catlett and his daughters Gloria Jean and Martha O’Driscoll, who have just moved into the house next door — which turns out to be haunted by a ghost who does a soft-shoe shuffle to “Old Folks at Home”. With our heroes running a nightclub, and with Col. Breckinridge Marshall (Catlett) having moved to New York so his daughters can sing at Carnegie Hall, there were plenty of songs in the picture’s modest 68-minutes, inserted amid the comedy (very funny) and hauntings (surprisingly creepy).

This was followed by another Gloria Jean musical from Universal, Moonlight in Vermont (1943). Gloria Jean was essentially a second-string Deanna Durbin, but she had a charm of her own, and her presence graced this picture as it did Ghost Catchers. Here she played a country girl transplanted to a New York music school, who then enlists the help of her fellow students to return to Vermont and save the harvest on her uncle’s farm. In this one she was teamed with a blandly talented 17-year-old song-and-dancer named Ray Malone, best described as Donald O’Connor without the personality.

The third day of Cinevent wound up with The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) from 1950s schlockmeister Bert I. Gordon, in which army colonel Glenn Langan is exposed to radiation during a nuclear bomb test that causes him to grow to gigantic proportions and menace Las Vegas (far more subdued in ’57 than it is today) before being blasted off Hoover Dam into the depths of Lake Mead — I guess you could call it The Incredible Enlarging Man. At lunch that day, I rather flippantly dismissed producer/director Gordon as “Ed Wood without the alcoholism”, but that was really unjust — Gordon’s movies were never as bad as Wood’s. Still, they do tend to strain 1950s nostalgia to pretty near the breaking point.

To be concluded…

 

Cinevent 2017 — No. 49 and Counting, Part 2

Day 2 – Friday

A surprise hit on Friday was Two Living, One Dead (1961), a British picture so utterly obscure that it was barely released even in the UK. It didn’t show up in the States until 1963, and it wasn’t reviewed by the New York Times or Variety — and in those days, as now, Variety reviewed everything. And yet it has a solid pedigree: It was co-written and directed by Anthony Asquith, the son of Britain’s World War I prime minister whose other movies included Pygmalion (1938), The Browning Version (’51), The Importance of Being Earnest (’52), The V.I.P.s (’63) and The Yellow Rolls-Royce (’64). It starred Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers (already popular stars and later best known for playing Joy and George Adamson in Born Free [’65]) and Patrick McGoohan, later of TV’s Danger Man (Secret Agent in the US) and The Prisoner.

The movie was actually a remake of two even more obscure pictures, A Dead Man Among the Living (Czechoslovakia, 1947) and 1937’s To levende og en død from Norway, home of Sigurd Christiansen, author of the 1931 novel on which all three pictures were based. The premise is simple: Two masked robbers hold up a local post office; the manager resists and is shot dead, another man winds up knocked unconscious, and the third (McGoohan) cooperates, turning over the office’s funds to the robbers and coming out of the incident unscathed. He behaves, in fact, exactly as authorities nowadays tell us anyone in that situation should do. In that time and place, however (meaning Norway in 1931, if not 1961 Britain), the man is condemned, even by the police, as a coward. His son is bullied at school, he loses his job, his marriage hits the rocks — even as his co-worker’s widow wishes her dead-hero husband had been similarly “cowardly”. This social pariah eventually strikes up a friendship with a man who turns out to have been one of the robbers — and who proves to him that he displayed the better part of valor. But is it too late for him to put his life back together?

Two Living, One Dead is a razor-sharp British noir, suspenseful, thoughtful and thought-provoking, with excellent performances. If you weren’t in Columbus for this screening, good luck ever finding it…anywhere.

There were other pleasures on the bill on Friday: Exclusive (1937), a crusading-newspaper melodrama from director Alexander Hall starring Fred MacMurray, Charlie Ruggles, Lloyd Nolan and Frances Farmer (at the height of her sadly truncated career); The Scarlet Car (1917), one of only a handful of Lon Chaney’s early pictures that has survived to the present day; another Laurel and Hardy short, Towed in a Hole (1932), in which the boys are fishmongers who decide to invest in their own fishing boat, with the usual mayhem ensuing.

But the biggest event of the day — indeed, the most eagerly awaited screening of the whole weekend — was Where’s Charley (1952). This is arguably the greatest movie musical you can’t see, and the fact that you can’t see it is nothing less than a crime against popular culture. But more on that in a moment.

Where’s Charley? was a Broadway musical adaptation of Brandon Thomas’s Charley’s Aunt, the granddaddy (grandmama?) of all cross-dressing comedies. The show streamlined Thomas somewhat, combining Charley Wykeham and Fancourt Babberly (who is dragooned into masquerading as Charley’s aunt from Brazil, “where the nuts come from”) into one character. Playing Charley, in drag and out, was Ray Bolger, just about the greatest comic dancer America has ever produced (his performance as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, even his extended dance to “If I Only Had a Brain”, hardly begins to do justice to his talent). The show was a personal triumph for Bolger and ran 792 performances on Broadway at a time when anything over 300 qualified as a smash hit.

In 1952 Jack Warner — at the beginning of his penchant for faithfully filming Broadway musicals (The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Gypsy, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, 1776) — transferred Where’s Charley? to the screen pretty much intact, directed by David Butler and choreographed by Michael Kidd in his movie debut. The movie was another hit, fondly remembered by all who saw it, and Ray Bolger’s own favorite of all his film appearances. Then it disappeared from public view.

The problem was Frank Loesser, whose score for Where’s Charley? was his first Broadway score and his first solo effort. He didn’t like it, certainly not in comparison to his later works: Guys and Dolls (1950), the movie Hans Christian Andersen (1952), The Most Happy Fella (1956), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961). Loesser died in 1969, before Warner Bros.’ 20-year lease on the Where’s Charley? score expired, but he made it clear that he didn’t want the lease renewed, and his widow Jo Sullivan Loesser (who according to some reports never liked the movie much anyway) has respected his wishes to this day. (Although, as Richard Roberts observes in his program notes for this screening, neither Frank nor Jo Loesser were too embarrassed or too proud to pocket the small fortune in royalties for “Once in Love with Amy”, the show’s breakout hit.)

We can only hope that Jo Loesser and her late husband’s other heirs will relent before the original film elements to Where’s Charley? have crumbled to dust (if it’s not already too late for that). Until that day, we must content ourselves with the occasional print like the one that screened at Cinevent this year. It was not, alas, a Technicolor print, but a 16mm rental print struck off in the 1950s in the notoriously unstable Eastman process; there was still color present thanks to decades of cold storage, but it had already shifted to orange, on its inexorable march to beet-red, then lemonade-pink, before in time fading away to nothing. (I’ve been informed that, unlike these American Eastman prints, rental prints in England were struck in real Technicolor, which never fades. I imagine if one of those prints ever finds its way into the market, the owners can pretty much set their own price.) Orange color or no, this was a rare opportunity to see Where’s Charley? filmed right on the grounds of Oxford University where Brandon Thomas’s play takes place, with Michael Kidd at the beginning of his career and Ray Bolger at the height of his, recreating one of Broadway’s legendary performances. And yes, the audience all sang along with “Once in Love with Amy”.

Where’s Charley? was the highlight of the day, but the rest of the program wasn’t exactly an anticlimax. There was Professional Sweetheart (1933), Ginger Rogers’s first starring vehicle (and in that Pre-Code year, parading her in a more revealing array of lingerie than moviegoers would ever see again); and the day wound up with Man Made Monster (1941, reissued in 1953 as The Atomic Monster), a Universal variation on Frankenstein with a sympathetic performance by Lon Chaney Jr. midway between his breakout role as Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1939) and his iconic turn as The Wolf Man (’41).

On Saturday it would be cartoons, a feature from producer George Pal, and a restoration of a semi-lost Laurel and Hardy classic. But I’ll get to that next time.

To be continued…

Cinevent 2017 – No. 49 and Counting, Part 1

Day 1 — Thursday

There was a certain amount of backstage drama this year as the 49th Annual Cinevent Classic Film Convention gathered in Columbus, Ohio over Memorial Day Weekend, and for a while it threatened to throw a bit of a monkey wrench into the program. But never mind, the drama resolved itself with a minimum of fuss and things proceeded more or less as planned.

The weekend started on Thursday with one of those well-made B pictures of the Classic Era that have long been a mainstay of Cinevent programs. This one was Chasing Danger, a 1939 Paramount starring Preston Foster as daredevil newsreel photographer Steve Mitchell (taking over from Brian Donlevy, who played Mitchell in 1938’s Sharpshooters), gallivanting across North Africa with Wally Vernon as his querulous sidekick Waldo Winkle. It was a breezy affair, clocking in at a lightning 60 minutes flat, one of only seven pictures directed by Latin Lover Ricardo Cortez.

 

 

 

Next came another one from Paramount, A Medal for Benny (1945), a sweetly satirical look at a small California town when one of their own comes home a posthumous Medal of Honor winner during World War II. The good burghers of the town, led by the likes of Charles Dingle, Frank McHugh and Grant Mitchell, decide that deceased hero Benny Martin is just the thing to put their little one-horse village on the map. Except that Benny “Martin” was really Benny Martín (pronounced Mar-TEEN), and he was a bit of a ne’er-do-well from the “wrong” (i.e., “brown-skinned”) side of the tracks — and he enlisted in the Marines just a step ahead of the local sheriff. In Benny’s absence his betrothed Lolita (Dorothy Lamour) has yielded to the attentions of another (Arturo de Cordova) who is only marginally more upstanding than Benny himself — but now the new guy is shunted aside so Lolita can be held up as the grieving Girl Benny Left Behind. Bemused and befuddled by all the attention is Benny’s simple father Charley (J. Carroll Naish), suspended between pride and grief for his lost son and confusion at his sudden social prominence. Directed by Irving Pichel and written by Frank Butler and Jack Wagner (with a story assist from John Steinbeck, whose name got the project green-lighted), it’s all a sort of Preston Sturges Lite — which is ironic, considering that Sturges himself had been driven away from Paramount over a year earlier, mainly for insisting on making too many movies like A Medal for Benny.

Be that as it may, A Medal for Benny is very much in the Sturges mold, albeit by somewhat lesser talents. As this poster suggests, the emphasis in promoting the picture was on the romantic angle between Lamour and de Cordova. But the picture really belongs to J. Carroll Naish, who got a well-deserved Oscar nomination (he lost out to James Dunn for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). Naish’s performance gives the movie a core of quiet dignity that enables it to rise above some rather dated Mexican-American stereotypes.

Just before the dinner break came Laurel and Hardy’s immortal The Music Box (1932), the one where the boys cart that crated piano up a flight of outdoor steps at 923 Vendome Street in Los Angeles (shown here as they looked in 1931 when the Oscar-winning short was filmed; the steps are still there, though the hillside has been built up and the steps are canopied over with backyard trees). This one hardly needs any introduction or comment, but I will say this: There are 139 of those steps, I know because I counted every one — and all I can say is the first 75 are easy. When you’ve gone from the foot of those steps at 923 to the top at 937 Vendome, you come away with a new respect for Oliver Hardy. As biographer John McCabe so aptly said, no actor ever worked harder for his paycheck.

Back from dinner and it was The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (1935), the lobby card for which leads off this post. Ronald Colman stars as an impoverished Russian prince, eking out a living as a taxi driver in post-World War I Paris. Scraping together a stake from a consortium of fellow émigrés, he wafts off to Monaco, where he performs the picture’s titular feat. Ah, but as they say, cherchez la femme — the femme in this case being Joan Bennett (age 25 and looking seven years younger). All ends well, if not wealthily, after a light and suavely frothy 64 minutes. As one veteran Cinevent-goer put it, “I like Ronnie Colman when he’s not being tragic.”

The highlight of Day 1, for me anyhow, was I Love Melvin (1953), in a delicious IB Technicolor print. It was, in a way, another cherchez la femme story; this time the femme was aspiring actress Debbie Reynolds, while the cherchez-er was Donald O’Connor as an apprentice photographer at Look Magazine who overplays his own importance as a way of getting to first base with Debbie. This was Donald and Debbie’s immediate follow-up to Singin’ in the Rain, and while I Love Melvin is certainly not in that league (how many movie musicals are?), it has a charm of its own. The songs by Josef Myrow and Mack Gordon may not boast any immortal standards, but they’re peppy and tuneful, and they give the stars the material they need to strut their stuff.

And seeing I Love Melvin prompted a thought that will probably get me drummed out of the ranks of Movie Musical Lovers Anonymous for flagrant heresy and unforgiveable lèse-majesté — but I’m going to go out on a limb and say it anyway.

Ahem

With all due respect to Gene Kelly and his chin-jutting, arm-flinging dream ballets, he was never half the dancer Donald O’Connor was.

There. I said it. So shoot me. But the evidence is right on the screen, hidden in plain sight. You can even see it in Singin’ in the Rain, in the “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Moses Supposes” numbers, where Gene is positively huffing and puffing to keep up. 

And if more evidence is needed (besides Donald’s Universal musicals with Peggy Ryan or Call Me Madam at Fox with Vera-Ellen), I Love Melvin has a clincher. Remember Gene’s dance on roller skates in It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)? Well, Donald did it first, and he did it better. The song is “Life Has Its Funny Little Ups and Downs”, sung by the scene-stealing Noreen Corcoran as Debbie’s kid sister:

 

 

The day wound up with Rogues’ Regiment (1948), a Universal-International film noir from director Robert Florey, starring Dick Powell as a US intelligence officer going undercover with the French Foreign Legion in Indochina (aka Vietnam) in an effort to track down a fugitive Nazi kingpin (Stephen McNally) who escaped from Berlin in the confusion of Germany’s collapse. I remember this one from years-ago TV; like many such, it’s been out of circulation for decades. It holds up nicely indeed.

I’ll pick up with Friday’s progam next time.

To be continued…

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.

nitratefr02-bing02

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.

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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.