Speak of the Devil…

I interrupt my survey of the Hollywood career of Carman Barnes for an announcement of urgent importance to movie buffs everywhere, and to fans of film noir, Ray Milland, and director John Farrow in particular:

Alias Nick Beal is returning!

If the title means nothing to you, then you have not read my 2011 post on this unsung masterpiece. You can find it by scrolling down the index column on the right to “Lost and Found: Alias Nick Beal — or by clicking on the link you just read. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

To be fair, while Alias Nick Beal is a masterpiece, it’s not entirely unsung. The late film historian Leslie Halliwell was a fan, having caught it almost by accident during its half-hearted 1950 release in Great Britain (where it was titled The Contact Man). Otherwise, the movie died unnoticed in 1949 and has been virtually forgotten ever since. Long a staple of Late Late Shows on local TV stations (where I discovered it in the 1960s), it was last shown publicly, to the best of my knowledge, on The Movie Channel in 1990.

That will change this coming Wednesday, August 2, 2017. Turner Classic Movies will screen Alias Nick Beal at 9:00 p.m. Pacific Time — that is, at 12:00 Midnight Eastern Time, in the earliest hours of August 3. A most appropriate time slot for this creepy, deeply sinister political melodrama.

A word to the wise is sufficient. Don’t miss Alias Nick Beal. After it’s over…well, pleasant dreams.

 

Five-Minute Movie Star: Carman Barnes in Hollywood, Part 2

Like her Schoolgirl heroine Naomi Bradshaw, Carman Barnes shared a suite at boarding school with two sisters, Clara and Mary Jackson. And in Carman’s case, she remained close to the Jackson girls for the rest of her life. In April 1931, Carman wrote a letter to Clara Jackson that survives in her papers at the University of Rochester. I quote it here in its entirety, with Carman’s occasional misspellings left intact:

Dearest Clara,

   No, Miss Barnes is not temperamental, glamorous or mysterious as yet. And she actually doesn’t bite. And Carman would love to have the two little Jackson girls come to visit her in the sad little town of Hollywood, if she doesn’t take that little actress away on location. You see, Miss Barnes’ first picture may be made in Florida, but even if it isn’t, Carman would be a dull hostess having to put the blonde star to bed every night at eight o’clock, tucking her in between the ermine lined sheets and smelling her breath to be sure she hasn’t sneaked a high ball. Miss Barnes will tell you that it’s no cinch being a movie star. However we’ll see how things work out, and how much breathing space she’ll get between pictures. Old writer Carman is sailing for Europe in July–believe it or not–which you probably don’t by now.

   The screen’s newest siren—who kisses—and wonders if her chin’s at the right angle (before the camera)–doesn’t attend many Hollywood parties, so it might be dull for the little Jacksons. Hollywood parties are—Hollywood parties. Very ginny, and very disillusioning. The last one Miss Barnes went to, an important studio executive engaged in a little battle on the floor with an important Broadway playwright–with much rolling gnashing of teeth, blackening of eyes, and —it is said shamefully—biting! All the sweet young thing’s were there too, Mary Brian, Janet Gaynor, Frances Dee, Philips Holmes, Betty Davis— and you know, they are very, very nice. So is Carman Barnes. She went home very ill, and it took the young thing two days to recover. But honestly, I can’t stand that sort of thing, and it happens so often and so easily here. It would be bad if it ever reached the newspapers, too. Hollywood is nutty over gossip–at any cost.

   When the young actress isn’t working, I loll on the beach, ride horseback three or four times a week. A young English boy and I ride early Sunday mornings, way up in the hills. We gallop up, swing around overhanging cliffs, almost leap off into the air, swerve, brandish our sticks, and shriek: “We have met the enemy in the passes and he is ours!” Try it some time. It’s great sport. I have a nice tan, too, and am very healthy.

   After you’ve once “been places” in Hollywood, there’s no reason to go again. Everything is of a sameness, the people are the same, movie people, they talk about the same things, movies, they eat the same thing, movies, and they drink the same thing, movies. Everyone likes to go to the Brown Derby once–but after a few times, it’s nothing but a small town café with hard seats and bad food. Primieres are fun—once, and sort of amazing, too, with thousands of people lining the side walks, great fires burning in the streets, carpets, canopies, flowers, radio announcers, ermine coats, stars swamped with orchids, glaring arc lights, and the “herd” yelling for autographs. But after one–they’re all alike, maybe the lights are bigger, the fires brighter–for one star than for another, but that’s all. Now, have I disillusioned you in your glorified conception of Hollywood. You might like it, I don’t know. There are so few people here worth knowing, so few who have any back ground, any culture, any intelligence, any humor.

   I go out with very few people. Tom Douglas, for one, the boy who is to play with me in my picture. He is charming, very humorous. He is southern and from a good family. That can’t be said of many people out here. And more than anything, he is not a ham, nor a “pretty” movie actor. I go out with a young producer and a young scenario writer, and Jack Spurlock, a boy from home who came out with us. That’s practically all. You’d be surprised how quiet the lives are that most people lead in Hollywood. Did you know that the streets were deserted by twelve o’clock?

   I’ll send you a picture, if I ever get time to mail it off. And write to me, you scamp— I still love you loads, darling-

Carman

As I said before, the kid could write.

By February 1931 Paramount was spreading the word of their new discovery. The studio sent a letter to all their theater managers — and Paramount had the largest theater chain in the country — introducing Carman and telling them (according to Variety) “how glad she is to be a picture star as well as a writer.” For good measure, managers were offered an autographed picture of Miss Barnes. It would be interesting to know if any managers took Paramount up on the offer, and if any of the photos survive. (At about this same time, reports began to circulate that Paramount had also paid Carman $30,000 for the screen rights to Schoolgirl. Whether because of the novel’s subject matter or the play’s lukewarm reception on Broadway, nothing ever came of that, and the idea was soon dropped even by the gossips.)

The seeds planted with the fan mags in January began bearing fruit in April. In Photoplay, gossip columnist Cal York’s “Monthly Broadcast of Hollywood Goings-On!” trumpeted, “Girl novelist turns actress!”:

Hollywood’s newest Cinderella is Carman Dee Barnes, eighteen-year old writer who ground out a story called “Schoolgirl” when she was fifteen.

Last fall she went west for Paramount to write. Now she’s to play the leading role in a story written by herself.

She’s reported to have said that she’s a little shy of pictures because she has to write down to her audiences!

This, from a kid writer of frenzied flapper fiction.

Are we allowed a small chuckle, or a modest guffaw? Sure!

That same month — April 18, to be precise — an ad in Motion Picture Herald listed Carman among Paramount’s “Screen Luminaries”, already placing her in such company as Harold Lloyd, Marlene Dietrich, the Marx Brothers, Maurice Chevalier — and yes, Clara Bow. Her first picture — the one that in January interviewers had heard about as Debutante or A Debutante Confesses or Confessions of a Debutante — had undergone a change of title, which would be the source of some confusion when those interviews finally saw print in May and June. Now, according to Paramount, the picture was Strangers and Lovers, “featuring Carman Barnes and Tom Douglas. Directed by Richard Wallace. A tale of a girl who is afraid she is wicked.”

In May, along with profiles and prominent plugs in Screenland and Silver Screen, Carman scored an item in Picture Play’s “Hollywood Highlights” column by Edwin and Elza Schallert that paid tribute to her skill at the age-old southern belle tease:

What chance will a girl in her teens now have to impress a movie producer, unless 1. She has tossed off a couple of novels? 2. She has gifts as a sculptor, playwright and musician? 3. Possesses a flair for snappy and sophisticated conversation? 4. Is — in a word — just a whirlwind of intellectuality?

Carman Barnes, eighteen-year-old Paramount discovery, sets a standard that must be wretchedly depressing to any young seeker of celluloid honors. For she has a veritable galaxy of smart attributes, including those above enumerated.

And what a free, informal soul this young maid of movieland is, incidentally! Our first glimpse of Carman was on a breezy day in the broad open spaces of the studio, clad in a futuristic-looking bath robe, and gayly diverting an audience of three wise old scenario writers with her piquant repartee. Carman was waiting photographic test time, and if the breezes blew lightly on her loose-fitting outer garment, she should worry. Persiflage and the laughter took complete precendence over the day’s chilliness or the wind’s revealing whimsies with a lady’s boudoir habiliments.

An insouciante, charming, and distinctly clever young woman from the Southland is this precocious author of “School Girl” and “Beau Lover,” who is to appear in her own story, “Débutante.” Amazing as it may seem, she sometimes photographs not unlike Garbo.

(As a side note, Mr. and Mrs. Schallert in those days had an eight-year-old son, Billy, who would grow up to be one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood history, playing — among hundreds of other roles — Dobie Gillis’s English teacher, Patty Duke’s father, and Milton the Toaster for Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts. William Schallert left us last year at the age of 93.)

The change from (Confessions of a) Debutante (Confesses) to Strangers and Lovers became official in an ad Paramount placed in the May 13 issue of Variety: “Debut of a new blonde beauty who will bowl screendom over —  Carman Barnes. In a big cast with Charles Rogers, Lilyan Tashman and others of established drawing power. In a strong story of young love that will long be remembered.” So this was the fulfillment of Variety’s February 11 item — two veterans, Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Lilyan Tashman (not to mention “others of established drawing power”), were coming aboard to do some of the heavy lifting for Carman and her “co-star” Tom Douglas. And in case you’ve lost track, in less than a month the story has gone from “a tale of a girl who is afraid she is wicked” to an “absorbing drama of an innocent-wise 19-year [old] charmer in a barracks town” to “a strong story of young love that will be long remembered.” An observant reader might have thought that somebody at Paramount was having trouble remembering that story for very long — might indeed have wondered if there was a story at all.

In May and June the gossip columns were liberally salted with items keeping Carman’s name front and center. Gladys Hall in Motion Picture and Cal York in Photoplay mentioned how Schoolgirl had gotten her “expelled from” (York) or “asked to leave” (Hall) her tony New York prep school. Meanwhile, Edward Churchill in Silver Screen asserted that she did manage to graduate from Ward Belmont in Nashville (the school she was attending when she wrote that first novel) “just after her seventeenth birthday.”

An item in the June Motion Picture mentioned Carman gushing over “a star famous for her vamp roles” (Who?, I wonder; Mae Murray? Nita Naldi? Louise Brooks? Theda Bara?), and clasping her hands in admiration of the lady’s orchid corsage: “Ah! how I adore orchids! I wish I could wear them — but I’m too young!”

Perhaps most amusing of all, Picture Play’s New York correspondent, Karen Hollis, went trolling among the bellhops at Carman’s former hotel:

Is She an Actress? The announcement that Carman Barnes, the child prodigy author, was also to act for Paramount fell like a bombshell in the New York hotel where she used to live. It happens that I live there now, and all the bell boys think I ought to know her just because I, too, have a typewriter.

They say she is an awfully smart kid, “Smart enough to act dumb and wistful and helpless when there is something she wants.” “Act? I should say she can. She was acting all the time, especially around the lobby and library when a flock of college boys blew in for the week-end.”

“Beautiful? Well, she’s no Claudette Colbert, but she’s pert and cute. She’ll be all right if people don’t make too much fuss over her. She loves attention. Her mother should have spanked her and torn up that dirty book she wrote.”

Reading that item, Carman the mature-beyond-her-years phenomenon suddenly sounds 18 again. Or rather, 17 — the age at which those New York bellhops knew her (and no doubt eagerly devoured “that dirty book she wrote”).

In that same June issue of Picture Play, Edwin and Elza Schallert in “Hollywood Highlights” commiserated with Carman for having “to sign her movie contract in the presence of a judge, because she happens to be a minor!…Movie companies arrange to have contracts with minors signed this way so that they may not be broken on the grounds of youthful incompetency of the player in business matters.” But this was old news by June: that hearing had happened way back in March. Still, it was publicity, and it lent the juggernaut of Carman’s approaching stardom the imprimatur of the California State Superior Court.

Anyhow, the days of magazine profiles, ballyhooing ads and gossip-column plugs, of Carman’s partying and horseback riding and enduring the hard seats and bad food of the Brown Derby, were reaching a climax — Carman was finally going before the cameras.

Next time: The rubber hits the road…and so does Carman

Five-Minute Movie Star: Carman Barnes in Hollywood, Part 1

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: For assistance in preparing this post, I am indebted to the University of Rochester River Campus Libraries, Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, and particularly to Andrea Reithmayr, Curator of the Carman Barnes Papers. In addition, Thomas M. Lizzio conducted an on-the-ground exploration of Carman Barnes’s neighborhood during her sojourn in Hollywood, and Scott Miller and Jill Katz of Aerodrome Pictures kindly provided photographs of Carman’s former home. Finally, Lee Riggs of the Shields Library at the University of California Davis was instrumental in tracking down some of Carman’s novels that are no longer available for sale.

*                         *                         *

This ad is how Paramount Pictures heralded the coming of its “ravishing new blonde discovery, Carman Barnes”. Fittingly enough, the ad appeared in the Motion Picture Herald for May 2, 1931, in a lavish 74-page full-color supplement commemorating Paramount’s 20th anniversary and trumpeting the studio’s “1931-32 Product Announcement”. This magnum opus of ballyhoo makes fascinating reading, as the studio publicity department heaps praise on everyone from Adolph Zukor on down (including contract writers, lowest of the low on the Hollywood totem pole), then unveils dozens of concept posters like this one promising exhibitors that “even bigger hits are here and on the way.”

Truth to tell, this roster of features is more a wish list than a promise. Many of its titles would indeed come along that season: the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business; Daughter of the Dragon with Anna May Wong; Josef von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Fredric March, A Farewell to Arms, The Smiling Lieutenant, Love Me Tonight. Others would show up with different titles (Sternberg’s Indiscretion with Marlene Dietrich turned out to be Blonde Venus; This Is New York became Two Kinds of Women; Cheated morphed into The False Madonna) or different stars (Paul Lukas was replaced by Herbert Marshall in Evenings for Sale and by Irving Pichel in Murder by the Clock). And some wouldn’t be along for years: Gary Cooper in Graft showed up as George Raft in The Glass Key (1935); The Strange Guest was ultimately Death Takes a Holiday (1934), with poor Paul Lukas dumped again, this time for Fredric March. Still others  — Manhandled with Clara Bow; Stepdaughters of War with Ruth Chatterton, Fay Wray and Jean Arthur — would never be made at all.

As things turned out, Strangers and Lovers was among those fated never to be — at least not under this title and, more to the point, not with Carman Barnes. This luscious specimen of Pre-Code titillation (the longer you look at it the sexier it gets) is in fact the high-water mark of Carman Barnes’s Hollywood career.

Reconstructing that career might be easier with access to the files and archives of Paramount Pictures, and maybe someday I’ll have the time and resources to delve into them. As it is, I’ve been able to draw on the few documents on the subject that survive in the Carman Barnes Papers at the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries, along with items gleaned from trade publications and fan magazines of the period. Fan magazines in particular must be approached with caution; they reveal a lot, but only through a glass darkly; what we read is filtered through layers of what studios wanted to share (or conceal) and what magazine writers and editors thought their readers wanted to know. It would tell us so much more if we had even a handful of memos from Paramount honchos discussing what to do with or about Carman Barnes.

In any case, Paramount first approached Carman in the late summer of 1930. By that time, she was the author of two published novels, Schoolgirl (1929) and Beau Lover (1930). Schoolgirl had been a sensation. Then came Beau Lover. For a 17-year-old even to have “lover” in her title was sensation enough, and the novel had a stylistic sophistication as eye-opening in its way as Schoolgirl‘s sexuality had been. (By way of comparison, in the 1950s teenager Francoise Sagan’s novels created a similar sensation — but Francoise was three years older than Carman had been. And French.)

On September 3 that year, Variety announced that A.W. Pezet and Carman Barnes’s Schoolgirl (“from the latter’s novel”) would go into rehearsal on September 29 with Henry B. Forbes producing. Pezet would direct. Two weeks later, on September 16, Carman (and her mother Diantha, Carman being still a minor) signed a contract with Paramount Publix. She was to be paid $350 per week for six weeks, to begin when she reported to the studio in Los Angeles “on or about the 10th day of November, 1930, to write, compose, adapt and arrange such literary material as the Corporation may assign to her”. A.W. Pezet had been in Hollywood before Carman, and a letter from him that survives in her papers gives her an idea of what to expect when she gets there. The letter also talks about the casting of Naomi Bradshaw in their dramatization of Schoolgirl, and how they had been unable to get the services of a young actress named Bette Davis, she being already committed to another play, Solid South. (Ah, the coincidences and near misses of showbiz history!) Instead, to play the 16-year-old Naomi they went with 29-year-old Joanna Roos, fresh from a well-received production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya with Lillian Gish and Osgood Perkins.

Schoolgirl opened at New York’s Ritz Theatre on West 48th Street (now the Walter Kerr). Opening night was November 20, 1930, Carman’s eighteenth birthday (with whoever laid out this playbill having separated the title into two words). Later, in an interview in Screenland Magazine, Carman told writer Margaret Reid, “It went over pretty well, but it got hell from the critics!” The show hung on for 28 performances before closing sometime in December. In fairness, 28 performances back then wasn’t the humiliating flop it would be now (Joanna Roos’s Uncle Vanya had run only 71), but it was far from the sensational hit Carman’s novel had been. (And by the way, if you’re thinking Bette Davis must have dodged a bullet, she didn’t do much better: Solid South opened on October 14 and closed 31 shows later. Shortly thereafter, Davis decamped to Hollywood and a screen test at Universal; Broadway wouldn’t see her again until 1952.)

In December Carman and her mother also left for California to embark on her six-week contract with Paramount. It’s reasonable to conclude that she reported for work at the studio on December 10, because exactly six weeks later, on January 21, 1931, she signed another contract with Paramount Publix. This one was for five years, at $1,000 a week, “to render services…as an actress and writer”. The contract hasn’t survived — not in Carman’s papers, anyhow — but she did preserve a copy of the petition filed with the California Superior Court requesting approval for this contract with a minor.

What brought about the change from one contract to the next? Again, without access to Paramount’s files, we can only surmise. But here’s where those fan magazines really come in handy. It’s clear from reading their profiles of her that Carman had considerable personal charm to go with her precocious writing ability. And this portrait that ran in Silver Screen Magazine suggests that Sydney Valentine’s Screenland article comparing her to Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich may not have been as over-the-top as it sounds.

So what was Carman Barnes like at 18? She was five feet five inches tall and weighed 111 pounds — “slender,” one interviewer wrote, “to the point of breakability.” She had large, clear, almond-shaped brown eyes that tipped slightly upward. Phrases like “Garbo-ish eyelashes” and “[Gloria] Swansonesque nose” crop up in interviews. One magazine described her hair as red, another as “corn-colored”, and a third (a month later) as “blondined”. She spoke softly through full, rounded lips, in a voice “with the slightly plaintive inflection of the South.” Margaret Reid of Screenland flirted with cattiness by saying, “Her hair shows evidence of relations with a bottle and her nails are too tangerine — but she dresses in excellent, sub-deb taste and uses little make-up.” Her skin was youthful (of course) and palely translucent. She enjoyed writing, reading, sculpting, painting, swimming, horseback riding, dancing — more or less in that order. She expected to marry someday, and to have children (“I wouldn’t miss that experience for anything.”), but was in no hurry (“I have too much I want to do, and be.”). She struck people as level-headed, with a lively sense of humor. Self-confident without being conceited. Not conventionally beautiful, but attractive, even striking. And they noticed an indefinable quality about her that they cast about for words to describe — arresting, startling, exotic, transparent, fascinating.

As Gladys Hall put it in Motion Picture, “Jesse Lasky discovered that Carman was that rare apparition, a literary lady with looks“, and more than one magazine identified him as the instigator of the five-year contract, the raise from $350 to $1,000 a week, and the change in her job description from “writer” to “actress and writer” — in that order.

Paramount was indeed looking to replace Clara Bow. Clara had weathered the transition to talkies well enough — her voice suited her screen image and she was still popular. On the other hand, mike fright was never far off, and it sometimes paralyzed her; much of the fun had gone out of making movies. Meanwhile, her too-public private life had been just heedless enough that some of the lies and slanders about her were beginning to stick (and do to this day), adding to her emotional instability. Clara was worth indulging to a point, but the studio was losing patience with the continual sick-outs, rests and retreats. Couldn’t they find someone just as sexy, just as “now”, and as young as Clara was when they found her, but without all that baggage?

In that interview with Gladys Hall, Carman appears to address this very point. “The most important standard is to be discreet,” she told Hall:

“No matter what a girl does, if she is quiet about it, it’s all right and she’s all right. If she is noisy and advertises what she is doing, it is not all right.

“I know many a girl who has done all there is to do and has been quiet about it, gone her own way and said nothing, and she is admired and respected by everyone who knows her. I know other girls who have never done anything they wouldn’t do in Sunday School, but who make up glaringly, wear daring clothes and otherwise advertise themselves, and everyone thinks the worst.

“It isn’t what we do that matters. It is the way we do it.” [Emphasis in original.]

Even now, 86 years down the line, this mini-manifesto has an unmistakeable air of throwing-down-the-gauntlet about it. Certainly, to a fan reading it in 1931, there could be no mistaking — well, if not who Carman was talking about, then at least who Gladys Hall was thinking of when she wrote the article.

By the time this interview and others appeared in May 1931, the publicity push for Carman had been in full swing for some time. Any monthly magazine dated May would have hit the stands in mid-to-late April, and been in production for weeks before that. Certainly that 74-page color supplement in Motion Picture Herald (the one with the Strangers and Lovers poster that leads off this post) had been in the works for months. Indeed, in the 1931 Motion Picture Almanac (published in January) Carman is already listed among Paramount’s “New Leading Players” along with Ginger Rogers, Norman Foster, Miriam Hopkins, Stuart Erwin and others. In a paid Paramount ad in the same Almanac (“REASONS FOR THE MIGHTY DEMAND FOR PARAMOUNT ARE EASY TO STATE”), Carman — as well as Marlene Dietrich, the Marx Brothers, Maurice Chevalier, Ruth Chatterton, Charlie Ruggles, Kay Francis, etc. — appears under “Reason No. 4, such seat-selling personalities as:”though of course Carman herself had yet to sell a single seat.

May and June profiles of Carman in Silver Screen (by Edward Churchill), Screenland (Margaret Reid) and Motion Picture (Gladys Hall) had been in the hoppers at their respective magazines since mid-January, when the writers interviewed Carman in the first flush of her new contract. By the time they appeared in print, Carman’s story was already changing. Margaret Reid in the May Screenland, for example, says that Carman and her mother are house-hunting (“I’ve been looking at houses all morning. I’ve never seen so much rococo in my life!”). But by then the hunt was long over, and Carman and Mama Diantha were ensconced in this house at 1975 De Mille Drive (shown here in a more recent photo). Today De Mille Drive is part of the exclusive, private gated community of Laughlin Park, but back then it was simply a semi-upscale residential street midway up the hill from Hollywood to the high ground of Griffith Park; C.B. De Mille himself lived just up the road. (The house is currently the home of Aerodrome Pictures, a design studio that provides graphics and branding for a range of entertainment companies.)

More important, all three articles mention Carman’s first project at Paramount as either Confessions of a Debutante, A Debutante Confesses, or simply Debutante, which Carman is to write and star in — but by May that was already obsolete. On February 11, Variety (always more on top of the entertainment news than any of the fan mags) ran an item headlined “Soft-Pedaling Barnes”:

Despite all the heavy advance plugs on Carman Barnes, girl writer, as a new Paramount star, she will be given merely featured billing on her first picture.

Billing will be freak, reading “Debutante,” by and with Carman Barnes.”

It was, in retrospect, an ominous sign.

Next time: Carman Barnes at work and play in Hollywood

Say, What Ever Happened to Carman Barnes?

I can hear you now: “WHO???”

Frankly, that was exactly my reaction when I first encountered Carman Barnes’s name (and no, that’s not a typo: it’s “Carman”, not “Carmen”. Her great-grandmother was married three times, the last time to a man named Carman. Carman’s parents liked the sound of that, and there you are).

I was combing through some old fan magazines researching a post on Clara Bow’s talking picture career (that post, by the way, is still simmering on a back burner, refusing to come to a boil). In the May 1931 issue of Screenland Magazine I found an article by Sydney Valentine, “Danger Ahead for Clara Bow” (“She’s always taking chances! And now — what’s to become of her?”). Valentine offered unctuous advice to Clara on her floundering career and scandalous private life (one having largely caused the other), and he warned her:

Right now, out in Hollywood, there are more promising new girls than ever before! And at least two of them are apparently being groomed “to take Clara Bow’s place.”

Then he listed several of them, most of whose names will be at least vaguely familiar to any self-respecting classic-movie buff. Valentine emphasized that any one of them might supplant Clara as “the spirit of youth” (Clara herself was still only 26), so I’ll take them more or less in descending order of their ages as of May ’31, with some of Valentine’s remarks:

Sidney Fox (23 years, 5 months) “…very young…brunette, with lovely big dark eyes, and a warmth and sweetness to her that the camera will gulp in great big bites. She’s Universal’s find, and Junior Laemmle has big things in store for her.” As things turned out, Sidney Fox became one of Hollywood’s sad cases. Petite (only 4′ 11″) and (as Valentine suggests) angel-faced, she made a name for herself in a couple of Broadway plays. That brought her to the attention of Carl Laemmle Jr., who signed her for Universal. She made her film debut in The Bad Sister, released just two months before this article. Based on Booth Tarkington’s 1913 novel The Flirt, it was also the debut of Bette Davis — and oddly enough, it was Fox who had the title role; Davis was her timid older sister. Sidney Fox’s best-remembered picture is 1932’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (she was even billed over Bela Lugosi), but she’s not what it’s remembered for. Gossip had her carrying on with Junior Laemmle (some even linked her with Carl Senior as well), and she became damaged goods. Marriage in 1932 to a Universal story editor was stormy and abusive, and a couple of European pictures in 1933 failed to reignite her career. Her fifteenth and final picture came in 1934; after that there was a little stage and radio work, but the game was pretty much up. Ill and depressed, she decided to call it a day in 1942 with an overdose of sleeping pills. She was 34.

Lillian Bond (23 years, 4 months) “A sweet little siren with irreproachable diction and frank ambitions to create a new type of vamp on the screen.” Actually, the name was Lilian, though for much of her career she was billed with the double-L. Those vamp ambitions never quite materialized, but Bond gave it a decent shot. A couple of classics: she played Charles Laughton’s chorus-girl squeeze in James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932), and contributed a memorable cameo as Lily Langtry in the last scene of William Wyler’s The Westerner opposite Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan. Apart from that, it was mostly supports and bits, sometimes uncredited, then a sprinkling of television work before she retired from acting in 1958. She died in 1991, age 83.

 

Sylvia Sidney (20 years, 9 months) “Lovely. Lush. Terribly young. Terribly keen, and smart. Knowing in the New York manner. Sure of herself — a little too sure, maybe; but so exquisite you can’t worry about that.” In fact, Sylvia Sidney had already replaced Clara Bow on one picture, City Streets opposite Gary Cooper, released the month before Valentine’s article appeared. We all know what became of her: She went the distance in every sense. She never quite made it to superstardom, but she was a star, no error, and she worked steadily for over 60 years with directors from Josef von Sternberg, Henry Hathaway and Fritz Lang to Tim Burton, Wim Wenders and Joan Micklin Silver. Her last performance was in 1998 on the rebooted Fantasy Island TV series (with Malcolm McDowell as Mr. Roark) and she died at 88 in 1999 — no doubt still looking forward to her next job.

 

Marian Marsh (17 years, 7 months) “…the lovely little girl who looks like Dolores Costello with a dash of Constance Bennett, and who has been chosen by John Barrymore to play opposite him in ‘Svengali.'” “Marian Marsh” first came into existence when this young actress signed with Warner Bros. (born Violet Krauth, she had made a few minor film appearances as Marilyn Morgan). That Svengali gig, which went into release the month Valentine’s article appeared, was a good beginning. Barrymore did indeed choose her to play Trilby for her resemblance to his wife Dolores Costello, and he reportedly coached her throughout production (we all know what that can mean; read Mary Astor’s autobiographies). She had a good run for several years, first at Warners’, then Columbia, Paramount and RKO, before winding up on Poverty Row at Monogram and rock-bottom PRC. She retired from acting at age 30 (except for a couple of TV one-shots in the 1950s). Eventually, she settled in Palm Desert, Calif., a town founded by her second husband Cliff Henderson, and she in turn founded Desert Beautiful, a nonprofit conservation organization. She outlived Henderson by 22 years, dying at 93 in 2006.

So those were some of Sydney Valentine’s candidates for The Next “It” Girl. But the one he mentioned first, gave pride of place, was Carman Barnes (18 years, 6 months) “Something brand new — exciting — with a dash of the exotic, too. In fact, if you can imagine anything so fantastic — if there could be a combination of Garbo, Dietrich and Bow, Carman is it!”

Whew! Down, boy!

You may look in vain for Carman Barnes on the Internet Movie Database; she’s not there. Now of course, Hollywood history has plenty of would-be superstars whose careers failed to live up to their studios’ or producers’ plans for them. Sam Goldwyn brought Ukrainian-born Anna Sten over from Germany heralding her as “the new Garbo”; she bombed. At MGM, Arthur Freed’s protégée Lucille Bremer was groomed for stardom (partly as a ploy to keep Judy Garland in line), but the public simply wouldn’t have her. Well, the public never got to weigh in on Carman Barnes; her career as a movie star ended before she appeared on even so much as a single frame of film. But Paramount (Clara Bow’s studio, and Sylvia Sidney’s) gave her quite the media blitz in the early months of 1931. There has never been a bigger buildup with less follow-through.

Carman Dee Barnes was born on November 20, 1912 in Chattanooga, Tennesee, to James Hunter Neal, a “wealthy manufacturer”, and his wife Lois Diantha Mills Neal, a lyric poet and writer of mountain folklore who published under the name Diantha Mills. Whether Carman’s mother became widowed or divorced I wasn’t able to learn (divorced, probably). In any case, she remarried Wellington Barnes, founder and treasurer of Chattanooga’s Dixie-Portland Cement Co., and daughter Carman took his surname as her own.

Carman was an only child, and precocious; in interviews she said she “cannot remember the time when she did not know how babies are born.” A sickly child, “always having measles or whooping cough or pneumonia or something”, she spent much of her childhood indoors — first reading voraciously (Bertrand Russell and W. Somerset Maugham became favorites), then writing (“Long, elaborate stories about love and tragedy and divorce and all. They were very funny.”).

By the time she was 15 those around her began to notice that she did in fact have a way with the written word. One friend gave her the usual advice: Stop writing about love triangles until you know something about them; write what you know. All Carman really knew at that point was attending boarding school, first Girls’ Preparatory School in Chattanooga, then the Ward-Belmont School for Girls in Nashville. So during her summer vacation from Ward-Belmont in 1928 she decamped to this cozy cabin on the left, her family’s summer retreat  (quaintly dubbed Once Upon a Time) on Tennessee’s Lookout Mountain. There she wrote a novel (“I’m not awfully interested in the short story form.”); she called it Schoolgirl.

Mama Diantha was pretty proud of her daughter for turning out a 47,000-word novel over one summer at the age of 15, and — perhaps cashing in a few chips’ worth of her regional literary reputation — she submitted Carman’s manuscript to publisher Horace Liveright in New York. Carman turned 16 that November and a month later, while she was decorating the family Christmas tree, she received a telegram that Boni & Liveright had accepted Schoolgirl for publication.

Carman’s mother also deserves points for (if nothing else) maternal aplomb. If Carman actually did take that friend’s advice about writing what she knows…well, many mothers in 1928 would have been pretty startled by what this youngster knew at that age, and in those days.

Schoolgirl tells the story of Naomi Bradshaw, a 16-year-old southern belle with a string of boys on the line. When a late-night gallivant with one of them — which Naomi, only vaguely understanding what she’s saying, calls an “elopement” — creates a minor scandal in the town, her indulgent but exasperated father ships her off to South Fields Prep, a girls’ school at some distance from her hometown. His hazy notion is that the closely-chaperoned life there will keep her from getting a “reputation”. Naomi throws a half-hearted tantrum about it, but the fact is she’s half looking forward to the change.

At South Fields Naomi has no trouble slipping into the social life — the “societies”, the clandestine parties after lights-out, the chaperoned outings and secret dates with boys from the town. The girls are housed two to a room, with each two-room suite sharing a bathroom. Naomi’s suite-mates are sisters Celia and Margie Morgan; her roommate is Janet Livingston (“Her eyes were kind and hazel, her mouth full, with a tender, lovable beauty.”).

Olive, one of the girls in Naomi’s dorm, casually cautions her about “crushes”: “Everybody has a crush sooner or later when they go off to school…oh, not a desperate one with petting and all, but just sort of a stage-struck, tongue-tied friendship, admiring a girl from a distance and all.” At the thought, Naomi feels “weak, repulsed, horrified”, but as the term wears on — there’s no other way to put it — she falls in love with Janet Livingston, with all the attendant insecurity and petty jealousies. When she learns that Janet “went the distance” with Jerry, her boyfriend back home, Naomi follows suit in short order, losing her virginity to Dave, the boy she’s been dating on the sly when the watchful eyes of the school were looking the other way:

…His breath against her ear, the force of his strength, his masculinity, his love crashing through her resistance.

No, it couldn’t be put into words. It wasn’t altogether passion, Naomi was sure — not all passion — but love, this exultant, flaming thing that swept her off her feet, and lifted her out of herself. She wasn’t afraid now, but the fire of fierce desire had weakened her, had made her heedless. It seemed to be the most natural thing in the world.

Despite Naomi’s “ecstatic joy” at “being thrilled by the right kind of thrill”, the subtext is clear: She takes this step not to get closer to Dave, but to feel closer to Janet, and Naomi’s most passionate moments are with her:

Frantically she drew Janet’s yielding form nearer her own, felt the rise and fall of Janet’s firm, rounded bosom surging with the emotion of remembered pleasures, and her lips met Janet’s in wild longing. Soft, soft lips! Naomi was awed by their warm tenderness. Dave’s — Dave’s had been hard and fiercely demanding. Janet’s were like the velvet petals of a flower, a red, red — dark red — flower!

This is headlong stuff for a 15-year-old in 1928. Much of Schoolgirl may strike modern readers as old-fashioned — the slang, the social customs — but no two ways about it: the kid could write.

Schoolgirl‘s episodes of sexual experimentation are about as explicit as respectable fiction could get in the 1920s — remember, the word “obscenity” was thrown around much more freely in those days, and it was still a crime to send it through the mail — and the novel’s eye-opening frankness made it a bestseller, and Carman Barnes a celebrity. A second novel, Beau Lover in 1930, gave evidence that Schoolgirl had been no fluke, and later that year Carman collaborated with Alfonso Washington Pezet on a stage adaptation of Schoolgirl, to be produced on Broadway in the fall. Carman was still only 17.

Then Paramount came calling. We’ll get into that next time.

To be continued…

 

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