Films of Henry Hathaway: Fourteen Hours (1951)

This title card appears early in Henry Hathaway’s Fourteen Hours — at the “climax” of the opening credits, you might say, just before the credit cards for producer Sol C. Siegel and director Hathaway. It’s the standard “entirely fictional and any similarity” disclaimer, the kind that usually appears in super-small type somewhere near the copyright notice, the MPAA “approved” certificate number, the Western Electric and IATSE credits, and other things that are legally required but nobody really cares if you see or not. For this picture, though, 20th Century Fox took the unusual step of making sure the disclaimer was very prominently placed where even the most inattentive could hardly miss it.

The studio didst protest too much; the disclaimer was disingenuous. Fourteen Hours was generally fictional, but not entirely, and its similarity to “actual occurrences” and “actual persons” was fully intended.

Here’s Exhibit A. This isn’t a still from the movie, it’s a news photo from real life, taken on Tuesday, July 26, 1938. The man is 26-year-old John William Warde; the woman is his sister Katherine, 22. On that day, John and Katherine were visiting friends, a Mr. and Mrs. Valentine, who lived in Room 1714 of New York’s Gotham Hotel. Sometime around 10:30 in the morning, after John, Katherine and Mrs. Valentine had ordered lunch from Room Service, John calmly announced, “I’m going out the window.” And as the two women stared dumbfounded, he did. In a panic, Katherine phoned the front desk, screaming that her brother had jumped out the window — but he had only clambered out onto the ledge. And there he stayed while a crowd of spectators gathered in the street 170 feet below, traffic came to a standstill, and police emergency crews scrambled to coax, cajole or drag him to safety. Hoping to talk him in, NYPD traffic cop Charles Glasco chatted with Warde disguised as a hotel bellhop (Warde had threatened to jump if any cop came near him). Warde, who had attempted suicide before and been diagnosed with “manic-depressive psychosis” (that era’s term for bipolar disorder), resisted every effort. “I’ve got to work things out for myself,” he kept saying, “I’ve got problems to think about.”

 

 

That, in a nutshell, is the story of that day in 1938, and it’s also the premise of Fourteen Hours. This lobby card even eerily mirrors the photo — although the characters here aren’t brother and sister, they’re Robert Cosick (Richard Basehart) and Virginia Foster (Barbara Bel Geddes), his ex-fiancée. The movie’s disclaimer is further belied by its writing credit: “Screen Play by John Paxton From a Story by Joel Sayre”. The “story” was an article by Sayre, “That Was New York: The Man on the Ledge”, which appeared in The New Yorker on April 16, 1949, chronicling John Warde’s story. And the picture’s original working title was The Man on the Ledge, just like Sayre’s factual article. (As for why the title was changed, I’ll get to that later.)

So much for those supposedly not-intended similarities; some of them, anyhow. It’s the differences between real life and the movie that make Fourteen Hours so interesting.

The picture opens quietly — in silence, in fact, without dialogue or even background music. (Indeed, except for Alfred Newman’s fervid theme under the opening credits, then a second theme swelling through the movie’s last 90 seconds, there’s no music in the entire picture.) We are introduced to what will prove to be the two central characters in the drama that follows. First we see Patrolman Charlie Dunnigan (Paul Douglas as the movie’s version of Charles Glasco) walking his beat in the early morning calm. He passes the Rodney Hotel, where a worker is polishing the brass plate at the entrance. Meanwhile, up in Room 1505…

 

 

 

 

…a room service waiter (Frank Faylen) is delivering a breakfast tray to a guest registered as William E. Cook of Philadelphia, but who is really Robert Cosick (Basehart). He hands the waiter some cash, and the waiter turns his back to count out his change on a tray. When he turns back, the room is empty. He checks the closet, then the bathroom. He notices the curtains billowing at the open window. Glancing out, he sees the missing guest standing on the ledge, breathing heavily, looking agitated.

 

Then the silence is rudely broken by the first human sound we hear — a secretary screaming in the window of a bank building across the street. Dunnigan dashes into the hotel to alert the staff, while the waiter calls down to the switchboard for the same reason. Dunnigan and Harris, the assistant manager (Willard Waterman), knowing now which room to go to, head up in the elevator. In the room, Harris blusters at Robert to come inside, sounding like an impotent scold. 

Down in the street, pedestrians are beginning to gather. The first two we see idly wonder if this is some kind of advertising stunt. Patrol cars screech to a halt at the hotel entrance, sirens blaring. Up in 1505, Robert warns Harris that if a cop comes near him, he’ll jump. Hearing that, Dunnigan commandeers Harris’s necktie to disguise his own uniform, then sits on the window sill, trying to strike up a conversation with the distraught Robert.

 

The colloquy between Charlie Dunnigan and Robert Cosick, a mixture of urgent pleading and forced-casual chitchat, provides the spine of Fourteen Hours, just as the real one between Charles Glasco and John Warde did for Joel Sayre’s New Yorker article. (Notice too how Joe MacDonald’s deep-focus photography emphasizes both men’s perilous perch 15 stories up. MacDonald was a master cinematographer who worked with Hathaway on nine pictures, including some of his best.)  

Over this bare factual skeleton Paxton’s script skillfully weaves a variety of fictional stories among the people drawn for one reason or another to the Rodney Hotel and the street outside. It amounts to a cross-section of the New York public circa 1950 — and for all the changes the city has seen in 69 years, it still rings true today.

Caught in the traffic jam down in the street are several cab drivers, unable to move their vehicles and looking at a day with no fares. “If I had my M-2 I could knock him off from here, clean,” says one of them (Harvey Lembeck). (And by the way, the African American gentleman is the great Ossie Davis, at the very beginning of his long career.) Another cabbie grumbles that if the guy wants to jump he should go ahead so the rest of New York can get on with their business. “Who cares? I figured on a good day today.”

Later on, this same sour cabbie suggests they should all pony up a buck for a pool and pick an hour; “the guy that gets closest to the time this joker jumps, that guy wins the pot.” His fellows are uneasy at his ghoulish idea, but they all go along.

Elsewhere in the crowd the reaction is more compassionate. Two young office workers, Ruth (Debra Paget, left) and Barbara (Joyce Van Patten, right), have gotten sidetracked on their way to work. The fretful Barbara wants only to get to work before they get in trouble with the boss. But Ruth is more worried about the stranger on the fifteenth floor: How old is he? What kind of trouble is he in? “Maybe someone was cruel to him, or maybe he’s just lonely…I wish I could help him.” Her tender words catch the ear of Danny behind her (Jeffrey Hunter), also pausing on his way to work. When Barbara gives up and leaves, Danny and Ruth strike up a sweetly tentative conversation. As the day wears on, neither of them will get to work. Feelings grow between them, and Danny reflects on how they might have gone their whole lives, missing each other by minutes, if it hadn’t been for this day. Hunter and the 17-year-old Paget were already launched on their successful careers as Fox contract players. Van Patten, making her film debut at 16, would in time become one of television’s busiest character actresses in a career that is still going strong today.

Needless to say, New York’s newshounds are also Johnny-on-the-spot. Newspapermen swarm over the scene like ants on a sugar cube. New York announcer George Putnam, playing himself, gives a play-by-play summary from a radio truck in the street. Another radio reporter barges into Room 1505 to jam a microphone out the window to eavesdrop on Dunnigan and Robert’s conversation — only to get the bum’s rush from the vigilant police. Station WNBC dispatches a television camera crew to the roof of a building across the street from the hotel. (Curiously enough, this wasn’t just an embellishment in Paxton’s script. NBC really did broadcast TV coverage of John Warde’s exploit back in 1938, even though there probably weren’t more than a few dozen sets in the whole city, and practically none in the rest of the country. It may well have been the very first example of television covering a breaking news story.)

 

 

Also making her film debut in Fourteen Hours was 21-year-old Grace Kelly, playing Louise Ann Fuller, on her way to discuss a divorce settlement with her estranged husband (James Warren) and their lawyers in an office overlooking the ongoing crisis. As the legal beagles drone on about the division of community property, Mrs. Fuller is preoccupied with the drama outside the office window; it begins to dawn on her that her own marital problems might not be so irreconcilable after all.

Kelly’s performance here led directly to landing her star-making role in High Noon the following year, but the casting became a bone of contention between Hathaway and Darryl F. Zanuck. Hathaway tested two women for the role, and he wanted Kelly. But Zanuck held out for the other woman — Anne Bancroft, who had just been signed to a Fox contract. As Hathaway acknowledged years later, they were both right, though Bancroft was only 19 and her talent wouldn’t reach full bloom for another ten years. Still, it’s intriguing to imagine how differently the two women’s careers might have gone if Zanuck had won that particular standoff.

While the crowd in the street mills about gawking, wringing their hands, or cracking callous jokes, up on the fifteenth floor things are in a muffled uproar. The NYPD’s rescue efforts are commanded by the officious but efficient Deputy Chief Moksar (Howard Da Silva, left), who coordinates activities while straight-arming a swarm of reporters and dealing with other interfering looky-loos (at one excruciatingly delicate moment, a crackpot preacher bursts into the room bellowing at Robert to kneel and pray). Police psychiatrist Dr. Strauss (Martin Gabel, center) offers on-the-fly advice to Moksar and Dunnigan on Robert’s mental state. Further complications come with the arrival of Robert’s divorced parents — his clutching, hysterical mother (Agnes Moorehead, second right) and feckless alcoholic father (Robert Keith, right), who graphically illustrate the Cosick family dysfunction. (“No wonder he’s cuckoo!” growls Moksar.)

 

 

The last puzzle piece slips into place with the arrival of Virginia Foster (Barbara Bel Geddes), Robert’s ex-fiancée. Strauss and Dunnigan take her aside. Why did she break the engagement?, they ask. “I didn’t, he did,” she says. Why? “He just said that he couldn’t…that he’d make me unhappy…”

Dunnigan: “Did you have a fight?”

Virginia: “No, but he’d get mad…”

Strauss: “What about?”

Virginia: “Whenever I tried to help him…”

Strauss launches into a Freudian spiel about how Robert’s mother couldn’t admit, even to herself, that she never wanted him, so she sublimated by teaching Robert to hate his father — which Robert subconsciously knew was wrong, so he only ended up hating himself. It’s a slick piece of 1950s Psych 101 to explain why Robert is out on that ledge.

BUT…That dialogue exchange among Strauss, Dunnigan and Virginia is a classic piece of Breen Office-era code. Adult audiences in 1951 would have had no trouble reading between those lines, imagining exactly what Robert “couldn’t” do that would make Virginia “unhappy”, and with a little more imagination they could picture what Virginia did to “try to help him” that made him so mad. This plants a suggestion, taboo in 1951, that may still go over viewers’ heads today just as it did the Breen Office’s back then, and for the same reason: they’re not accustomed to reading between the lines.

‘Nuff said.

In early 1950, when Darryl Zanuck decided that Joel Sayre’s human-interest New Yorker piece would make a good picture, he first offered the director’s chair to Howard Hawks. Hawks turned him down. Supposedly, Hawks said that the only way he could make the movie would be to convert it into a mistaken-identity comedy starring Cary Grant — an idea so bizarrely stupid that (if it really happened) it could only have been a ploy by Hawks to make sure Zanuck didn’t try to talk him into saying yes.

Zanuck next turned to Hathaway, who liked Sayre’s story, and Zanuck teamed him with writer John Paxton, a specialist in film noir (Murder, My Sweet, 1944; Crossfire, ’47, for which he was Oscar-nominated). Paxton’s noir credentials explain why the Fourteen Hours DVD was released under the “Fox Film Noir” banner. It doesn’t really resemble a film noir except in Joe MacDonald’s urban black-and-white cinematography; there are few of the customary noir characters or plot elements. It fits more neatly into the group of semi-documentary pictures Hathaway made in the mid-’40s, things like The House on 92nd Street (’45), 13 Rue Madeleine (’46), Call Northside 777 (’48), and Kiss of Death (’47) — that last of which actually straddles the border between semi-doc and noir much more than Fourteen Hours does.

Fourteen Hours was what was known as an A-minus picture — that is, a picture with an A budget but no major stars. The closest thing to one was Paul Douglas, the former sports announcer who had been one of Fox’s most popular and reliable supporting actors since his breakout work as Linda Darnell’s husband in A Letter to Three Wives (’49). In 1950 as Fourteen Hours went into production he was teetering between first and second leads, which he would continue to do for the rest of his life, until his untimely death from a heart attack in 1959 at 52. In Fourteen Hours, top-billed in a first-rate ensemble cast, he carries much of the film as his Charlie Dunnigan tries to lure Robert Cosick literally back from the brink, winging it from moment to moment with a seat-of-the-pants common sense.

Douglas essentially split leading-man duties with Richard Basehart as Robert Cosick. Basehart had been earning positive notice ever since his debut in 1947’s Repeat Performance. His good buzz gained momentum with his performance in He Walked by Night (’48) as a petty criminal and cop-killer. After Fourteen Hours he seemed to be on track to become one of America’s greatest actors. That never quite came to pass — most likely because of his unshakeable identification with the camp/kitsch sci-fi TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, in which he starred from 1964 to ’68 for producer Irwin (“Irwin the Terrible”) Allen. Despite that gig, which no doubt seemed like a good idea at the time, he remained an actor’s actor to the end of his days (a series of strokes took him off at 70 in 1984). In 1951 he still had fine performances ahead of him, especially the Fool in Fellini’s La Strada in 1954 and as Ishmael in John Huston’s Moby Dick two years later. As with Douglas, his work in Fourteen Hours is among his best. (Basehart’s performance is all the more impressive in light of what he dealt with during production. In May 1950, his wife of ten years, Stephanie Klein, was diagnosed with a brain tumor; she died on July 28 after surgery. Returning to work after her funeral, Basehart sprained an ankle. Then he contracted poison oak while cutting down a tree on the grounds of his Coldwater Canyon home.)

Fourteen Hours shot two weeks in Manhattan, with the Guaranty Trust Co. of New York at 23 Wall Street standing in for the fictitious Rodney Hotel. The original plan was to shoot the crowd scenes over Memorial Day (May 30, a Tuesday that year), but that proved impractical — especially when it was found that a wider ledge had to be added to the building’s facade to accommodate the stuntman doubling for Basehart. Then it was seven weeks back at the Fox studio, where a duplicate of the fifteenth floor, inside and out, was built on Stage 8. Studio records estimate that Basehart spent 300 hours standing on that replica ledge, which integrates seamlessly with the location footage of his stunt double actually fifteen stories up (that brave man is identified by Wikipedia — if we can believe Wikipedia — as one Richard Lacovara).

In the final analysis, I think, Henry Hathaway proved to be much better suited to the picture than the estimable Howard Hawks would have been. Fourteen Hours is among Hathaway’s finest work — one of his least actionful, but one of his most suspenseful. He and Paxton tighten the suspense steadily as the movie progresses, and Hathaway draws understated performances from the large ensemble. And that cast is an unusually strong one. Grace Kelly, Ossie Davis and Joyce Van Patten weren’t the only ones who were going places; among the future “names” in the cast are John Cassavetes, Richard Beymer, David Burns, Brad Dexter, John Randolph, Brian Keith (Robert Keith’s son), and Janice Rule — though you’ll have to look pretty fast to spot some of them. As a suspense drama, a psychological study, a comment on crowd psychology, and a wry critique of self-serving news media (as pungent today as it was in 1951), Fourteen Hours is one of the best movies of the 1950s.

EPILOGUE: Spoilers ahead — proceed at your own risk!

At the end of Fourteen Hours Robert Cosick is finally brought in through the window to safety — you’ll have to see the movie to find out exactly how that comes about. Unfortunately, the day didn’t end as happily for John William Warde. At 10:30 p.m. that night, John said to Officer Glasco, “I’ve made up my mind.” Glasco took this as an optimistic sign that John had decided to come in; at least that’s how he chose to read it. “That’s the way to talk,” he said. About that time, a childhood friend of John’s arrived in room 1714, and he relieved Glasco at the window talking to John.

Joel Sayre doesn’t identify the friend or say what he and John talked about. But at 10:38, after twelve hours — not fourteen — Glasco, sitting on the bed rubbing his tired legs, heard a roar from the crowd below: “There he goes!” Glasco burst into tears.

If you care to look for them, there are pictures of John falling, hitting the hotel’s marquee, lying like a bloody rag doll where he fell, and being almost literally scraped off the sidewalk into an ambulance. The pictures are out there, and they’re pretty grisly. New York’s news photographers were diligent that night; they didn’t want to miss something like that.

In the original version of Fourteen Hours the same thing (more or less) was supposed to happen to Robert Cosick. (It was probably the suicide angle that made Howard Hawks turn down the job.) In a series of oral history interviews with Polly Platt late in his life, Hathaway told the following story:

“The protagonist, played by Richard Basehart, was a weakling, and in my original version, he did commit suicide. But we previewed the picture the very day [Fox president] Spyros Skouras’ daughter actually jumped from a window. He wanted the picture burned. Six months later, Darryl ordered a happy ending and I felt the picture messed up…”

This story found its way, in almost exactly those words, into both Harold N. Pomaineville’s biography of Hathaway and Michael Troyan’s history of 20th Century Fox, and I hate to rain on another juicy Hollywood story, but the chronology doesn’t fit. Fourteen Hours began location shooting in Manhattan in June 1950, delayed from the Memorial Day start by the dressing of the bank building. Even if they started on June 1, the company would have resumed shooting at the Fox studio no earlier than June 16. Seven weeks on Stage 8 takes them to August 4 at the earliest.

Dionysia Colleen Skouras, age 24, leapt to her death from the roof of the Fox West Coast Building in Los Angeles on July 17. Obviously, Hathaway’s memory was playing him false. Fourteen Hours couldn’t have been ready to preview by then; it still had three weeks to shoot.

But here’s what does make sense. Midway through shooting, Ms. Skouras makes her sad exit. Maybe her father wants the picture shelved, maybe he doesn’t; in any case, Darryl Zanuck realizes he’s got an awfully delicate situation on his hands. He calls in John Paxton and orders a rewrite in which Robert Cosick survives. Hathaway balks; he wants to stick with the downbeat ending. Maybe Zanuck tells him that the only alternative is to shelve the picture, maybe he doesn’t. In any case, the compromise they reach is to shoot both endings.

Life Magazine (March 12, 1951) confirms that both endings were indeed shot, and the IMDb claims that “[s]ome original prints show the two different endings one right after the other.” Personally, I’ve never seen that other ending, and it’s not included among the extras on the DVD, so my guess is that it hasn’t survived. But it’s quite possible that when the picture was previewed — say, sometime in late August or early September — the preview audience saw both endings and were allowed to express their preference. Or there could have been two previews with one ending apiece, just to see which one went over better. Maybe Spyros Skouras chimed in, maybe he didn’t. In any case, Zanuck made the executive decision to go with the upbeat ending. Then, out of consideration for Skouras’s grief, he delayed the picture’s release until February (in L.A.) and March (New York and Great Britain).

Of course, all this is pure speculation — aside from the fact that Dionysia Skouras clearly didn’t die on the day of any preview. A search of the Fox archives might clear up what actually happened, but that’s a chore for another day. For the rest of his life, Hathaway preferred the ending where Robert jumps to his death, believing that Zanuck’s ending “messed up” the picture — and that’s his privilege.

But Hathaway was wrong. As Alfred Hitchcock learned with the boy carrying the briefcase bomb in Sabotage (1936), you can’t build up suspense like that, get an audience all wound up, only to end with “…and then he died.” Not when people have invested so much time in hoping things will work out. Not to mention that the subplots with Grace Kelly and James Warren giving marriage another go, and Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter strolling away in the glow of young love in bloom, would turn to ashes in the mouth if they had to walk past Robert Cosick lying on the sidewalk in a puddle of blood.

Fourteen Hours‘s multiple stories are resolved with Dickensian neatness; even that cabbie with his tasteless betting pool finally grows an uneasy conscience. Zanuck — or that preview audience — was right; the ending is completely satisfying as it is. To hell with “real life”.

And one last thing. I promised an explanation for why Joel Sayre’s title, “The Man on the Ledge”, was changed to Fourteen Hours. This was done at the request of John Warde’s mother. Sayre’s 1949 article had reopened an 11-year-old wound and put her son’s last day back in the public eye; she wanted to distance the picture from him (and, perhaps, herself from the screeching harpy played by Agnes Moorehead). Even so, when a 60-minute version was produced in 1955 for the 20th Century Fox Hour TV series (with Cameron Mitchell and William Gargan replacing Basehart and Douglas), the title was once again “The Man on the Ledge”.

Cinevent 51 — Day 4

Sunday morning began with another George O’Brien B-picture directed by David Howard. Whispering Smith Speaks (1935) was made for producer Sol Lesser, who spent nearly fifty years flitting around the margins of Hollywood, a sort of Sam Goldwyn of Poverty Row. One of Lesser’s standard practices — and I’d love to have been a fly on the wall of some of these meetings to see how he managed it — was to purchase the rights to popular literary characters, then to make cheapjack knockoffs using the titles or character names but little else. And that’s what he did here.

Readers of Frank H. Spearman’s 1906 novel Whispering Smith, about a railroad detective in the Old West, or the various movies made from it (including the one in 1948 with Alan Ladd), or the short-lived TV series with Audie Murphy, could be forgiven for expecting a western — especially with George O’Brien in the lead. Not so; Whispering Smith Speaks (the title apparently refers to the fact that this is Spearman’s hero’s first appearance during the sound era) is a modern-day (i.e., 1935) story, and the only “western” element is that it appears to take place somewhere in California. It’s actually more a romantic comedy than an action movie, with O’Brien playing the son of a railroad tycoon named Harrington who sets out to learn his dad’s business from the ground up, landing a job (under the name “Smith”) with a little podunk railroad run by winsome Irene Ware. Once there, he flirts with, romances, and wins the boss. In the process he not only saves her from an unscrupulous lawyer who plans to cheat her in a “friendly” takeover, but he proves to his own father that he’s a railroad man to reckon with, not just the owner’s pampered son. It was fun, if a bit of an anticlimax after The Marshal of Mesa City. Personally, I wouldn’t mind if Cinevent gave us two George O’Brien pictures every year from now on.

Next came His Majesty, the American (1919), an irresistible athletic comedy starring Douglas Fairbanks in his pre-swashbuckler phase. Not that the plot matters, but Doug played New Yorker William Brooks, who satisfies his hunger for thrills by tagging along with the city’s fire department (he even has a fire alarm and a pole to slide down in his home). When the city cracks down on such activities, he decamps to the town of “Murdero, Mexico” (!) in search of excitement. After a brief run-in with Pancho Villa, he is summoned to the tiny European kingdom of Alaine, where he is promised information about his own unknown roots, as well as the source of the mysterious funds that have supported him all his life. It turns out that he’s nothing less than the heir to the throne of Alaine, raised in the safety of America and in the bliss of ignorance; he has returned to his homeland in the nick of time to save it from the traitorous Minister of War, who plans to overthrow his grandfather the king. Needless to say, Prince William makes short work of the villains, straightens out Alaine’s tempestuous politics — and even learns to his delight that the girl he’s become smitten with (Marjorie Daw) is the countess who was betrothed to him in infancy. I must confess that I’m more partial to Doug’s costume pictures, but these modern-dress adventures of his have their own pleasures too, and His Majesty, The American is probably the best of the ones I’ve seen, with Fairbanks at his most intensely likeable.

After the final three chapters of Hawk of the Wilderness came The Midnight Girl (1925), This was a rather florid soap opera — an agglomeration of romantic triangles that overlap like elements in a Venn diagram — with a curiosity value it couldn’t have had in 1925. The curiosity value came from the casting of Bela Lugosi, still some years away from his fateful success as Count Dracula, as opera impresario Nicholas Harmon. As the picture opens, Harmon has had a falling out with his son Don (Gareth Hughes), who disapproves of his father’s affair with the opera singer Nina (Dolores Cassinelli). Don makes a clean break, leaving his father’s opera company for a job as bandleader in a cafe. There he meets Anna (Lila Lee), a Russian émigré with a beautiful voice who has been unable to find work. Don gets her a job in the cafe as a dancer in a production number called “The Midnight Girl”. Meanwhile, Nina’s voice is failing, and impresario Nicholas is tiring of her anyway, so he’s on the lookout for a new singer/mistress; eventually his roving eye settles on Anna. Add to this Don’s ex-girlfriend Natalie (Ruby Blaine) who is determined to get him back, plus Nina’s equal determination not to be cast off by Nicholas, and the scene is set for all those overlapping triangles.

The Midnight Girl had its pluses, including the interest of seeing Bela Lugosi as a more or less ordinary American (something possible only in a silent film). It’s chief drawback was the fact that the three women in the picture — Lila Lee, Dolores Cassinelli and Ruby Blaine — all looked exactly alike; whenever one came on the scene, we had to wait for her to do or say something to figure out who she was.

This brought us at last to the final picture of the weekend, a nifty little 65-minute murder mystery, While the Patient Slept (1935). Aline MacMahon starred as Nurse Sarah Keate, the creation of prolific mystery writer Mignon G. Eberhart, and Ms. Eberhart’s only series character. There were seven Sarah Keate novels, and five of them were filmed. This was the first, and one of the few pictures to top-bill MacMahon, one of Hollywood’s most welcome and reliable supporting players (for another one, check out the excellent Heat Lightning [’34] sometime).

In While the Patient Slept, MacMahon’s Nurse Sarah is called to the gloomy old Federie mansion to tend to patriarch Richard Federie, who has suffered a stroke after receiving some mysterious bad news. The Federie clan gathers at the old man’s bedside, then members begin dying off one  by one, and Nurse Sarah teams up with police detective Lance O’Leary (Guy Kibbee) for clue-gathering and flirty banter. Last year’s Cinevent ended on a real highlight, the marvelous Dreamboat (1952) with Clifton Webb and Ginger Rogers. This year’s finale may not have reached quite that daffy height, but it was highlight enough; you can’t really go wrong with one of those fast-paced Warner Bros. 1930s B’s, and Aline MacMahon and Guy Kibbee are hard to beat.

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I don’t want to leave my survey of this year’s Cinevent without mentioning my friend Phil Capasso. Last year, at the Golden Anniversary Celebration, Phil was honored as the only person who had been to every single Cinevent since the first one back in 1969. This dedicated attendance earned him the first slice of the 50th anniversary cake that evening, not to mention the privilege of introducing Cinevent 50’s guest of honor Leonard Maltin. Needless to say, Phil was in Seventh Heaven at that party, and as happy as I’d ever seen him. Then on August 28, 2018, barely three months after I took this picture of him in Columbus, Phil passed away at his home in Carmel, Indiana, at age 82. I’m sure he was planning for his annual trek to Los Angeles for Cinecon 54 on Labor Day Weekend. And I have no doubt he was already looking forward (in his customary phrase, “if God spares”) to joining us all again in Columbus for this year’s Cinevent 51.

I met Phil through my uncle at my first Cinevent in 1998, and every year since then I looked forward to renewing our acquaintance. Some years ago he was diagnosed with leukemia, but he had been successfully coping with that ever since getting the news. His cheerfulness and high spirits never wavered, and he clearly regarded every day as a gift to be treasured and enjoyed. This year’s Cinevent was dedicated to Phil, with tributes in the program contributed by author Scott Eyman and Bob Hodge of Cinevent’s team of “Peerless Projectionists”.

So long, Phil, and thanks for the memories! You were sorely missed by many this year, and you will be for years to come.

Cinevent 51 — Day 3

Saturday’s Animation Program this year was composed entirely of titles that had never been seen at Cinevent before, some of them quite rare. There were ten altogether, as always lovingly curated and annotated by Stewart McKissick. All were choice, but I’ll single out just five of my own favorites, illustrated here (with some YouTube links so you can pop over and watch them if you’re of a mind to). Clockwise from top left:

Mask-A-Raid (1931), an early Betty Boop — in fact, one of the first where she’s an actual human being rather than a weirdly sexy dog. Betty is the queen of a masquerade ball, and the proceedings are marked by the wiggy surrealism that was always Max and Dave Fleischer’s stock in trade. (If you do check it out on YouTube, note Betty’s entrance accompanied by identical-twin Mickey Mouses, both of them cut down to size and forced to carry Betty’s train. Max, Dave, you devils!)

The Hot Choc-Late Soldiers (1934). This one wasn’t a theatrical short, but a sequence produced by Walt Disney (and animated by Fred Moore) for MGM to include as a Technicolor sequence in Hollywood Party, a studio revue hung on a flimsy plot about Jimmy Durante inviting his movie star pals (including Mickey Mouse) to a soiree. Set to a song by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, the cartoon portrays a war of confections, chocolate soldiers vs. gingerbread men. The pic here shows the cocoa army, battered but unbowed, marching home in triumph. The sequence is fun, with a look and style foreshadowing the next year’s The Cookie Carnival, one of my favorite Silly Symphonies. (Interesting side note: Eleven years later, when MGM wanted to borrow Mickey for a tap dance with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh, Walt said no.)

Somewhere in Dreamland (1936). Two dirt-poor urchins dream themselves cavorting in the kind of country Disney’s chocolate soldiers come from — then wake up to find it’s all come true. This was the first Fleischer “Color Classic” to be made in three-strip Technicolor; before this Disney had exclusive use of the process and the Fleischers made do with Cinecolor or two-color Tech. Cinevent’s print wasn’t Technicolor, but it looked mighty nice; the YouTube post is almost as good.

Tulips Shall Grow (1942). In 22 years attending Cinevent, I’ve never seen one of producer George Pal’s 1940s Puppetoons presented there — understandably, since good prints of them are hard too find. What prints there are are usually unstable Eastmans struck for TV in the 1950s, now badly faded and beet-red travesties (hence no link for this one — that’s all YouTube has too). Tulips Shall Grow was one of the Hungarian-born Pal’s best and most heartfelt shorts. He had worked briefly in the Netherlands after fleeing the Third Reich; two years later, safely ensconced in Hollywood, he made this allegory of an idyllic Dutch countryside of windmills, tulips and young lovers in wooden shoes, ravaged by the “Screwball” (i.e., “Nazi”) Army. Again, Cinevent’s print wasn’t Technicolor, but it was gorgeous. (Another side note: This makes four straight years that George Pal has been a presence on Cinevent Saturday. In 2016 it was Houdini [’53]; in 2017, When Worlds Collide [’52]; and in 2018, The War of the Worlds [’53].)

Hullaba-Lulu (1944). Little Lulu (based on the popular single-panel cartoon by “Marge” that had been running in The Saturday Evening Post since 1935) was one of the series produced by Paramount after ousting the Fleischer brothers from their own animation studio. Like the Puppetoons, this series was all over TV in the 1950s but has all but vanished since then. In this one Lulu innocently creates havoc when the circus comes to town. I hadn’t seen this one in over 50 years, but I could still sing that unforgettable intro, the all-time-best-ever cartoon theme song.

After the cartoons — just like a Saturday Kiddie Matinee of my childhood — it was three more chapters of Hawk of the Wilderness. Then the Saturday Matinee mold was broken by a silent feature, 13 Washington Square (1928). Based on a popular 1915 Broadway play, it starred Alice Joyce as a snooty rich dame out to break up her son’s romance before he marries “beneath his station”. Going incognito while everybody thinks she’s sailing to Europe, she falls in with a smooth art thief (Jean Hersholt) who’s plotting to burglarize her Washington Square mansion while she’s supposedly out of the country. Everybody winds up running around the house just missing each other — the thief to rob the place, the mother to stop him, the son and his sweetheart (George J. Lewis, Helen Foster) to pack his clothes and elope. It sounds like a good old-fashioned door-slamming farce, and maybe that’s what it was on stage, but Melville Brown’s stodgy direction kept things from really taking off. Still, it was amusing (partly due to Zasu Pitts as Joyce’s maid), and love did triumph in the end.

 

After lunch it was the return of a longtime favorite feature at Cinevent, a program of Charley Chase comedy shorts. This year’s entries were You Said a Hatful (1934), The Count Takes a Count (’36), and Calling All Doctors (’37), all quite funny. Welcome back, Charley; we missed you last year.

Then came the event that tied in with the Wednesday night Wexler Center program of two Audrey Hepburn pictures — author Robert Matzen gave a presentation on his latest book, Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II. Already a bestseller on Amazon in three different categories (World War II History, World War II Biography, and Entertainment Biography), the book recounts teenage Audrey’s experiences under the German occupation of the Netherlands. (Ironically, Audrey had been in school in England when the war broke out. She was called back for her own safety by her Dutch mother, who assumed that England would be invaded any day. Mom further assumed that Hitler would respect the Netherlands’ neutrality as Kaiser Whilhelm had done in World War I. It was the least of the delusions of which Mom was fated to be disabused.)

Robert Matzen introduced Dutch Girl as the third and final volume in what he termed his “Hollywood in World War II” trilogy, following Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 and Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. His presentation was informative and tantalizing, as he occasionally hinted at juicy details that he wouldn’t disclose — “For that you’ll have to read the book.” I picked up my own copy of Dutch Girl at one of Robert’s book signings; I’m reading it now and may well have more to say in a later post. For now I can certainly recommend my readers hop on the bestseller bandwagon and get the book for themselves. (By the way, a noted filmmaker who shall here remain nameless, but who knew and worked with Audrey late in her too-short life, has expressed a keen interest in filming Dutch Girl. I hope that comes to pass; it would mark the completion of the filmmaker’s own World War II trilogy.) (Oops! Make that a “quintilogy”; Dutch Girl would be the filmmaker’s fifth picture about the war.)

Just before the dinner break came one of the surprise highlights of the whole weekend — a surprise to me, anyhow. Not because I didn’t expect it to be good, but because it was so much better than I expected. This was The Marshal of Mesa City (1939), with George O’Brien as a former lawman who takes up the badge again in a new town — this because he takes a shine to a local schoolteacher (Virginia Vale, O’Brien’s leading lady in six of these B-westerns he made for RKO), while he also takes an instant dislike to the corrupt county sheriff (Leon Ames) who’s been forcing his attentions on the school marm.

George O’Brien deserves to be remembered much better than he is. Starting out in Hollywood as a stuntman, he rose up the ladder to star in some of the biggest pictures of the silent era: John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (’27), Michael Curtiz’s Noah’s Ark (’29). The Iron Horse landed him a charter membership in Ford’s stock company, and he later played key roles in Fort Apache (’48), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (’49) and Cheyenne Autumn (’64). In between he was a top box-office draw in dozens of westerns, first at Fox, then RKO, and it’s easy to see why. He combined extreme good looks and physical prowess with likeability and an easygoing sense of humor. And oh yeah, he also served with distinction in the U.S. Navy during both World Wars.

In my limited experience of O’Brien’s westerns, The Marshal of Mesa City is easily the best, for a number of reasons — chief among them a movie-stealing performance by Henry Brandon as a gunslinger hired by Ames to kill O’Brien, but who switches sides when he decides he likes his intended victim better. Another plus was director David Howard (who helmed many of O’Brien’s pictures). He may have been a routine talent, but his climactic shot of O’Brien and Brandon striding into the thick smoke of the burning jail, guns blazing, for a showdown with Ames and his gang — that was worthy of John Ford or Henry Hathaway.

Richard Barrios introduced The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932), a risqué Pre-Code comedy from producer Sam Goldwyn and director Lowell Sherman (who also co-starred as a lubricious concert pianist), based on Zoe Akins’s 1930 play. Ina Claire, Joan Blondell and Madge Evans were deliciously well-matched, romping through the story of gal-pals trolling for sugar daddies. The three-gold-diggers-on-the-prowl premise was already familiar, and it would become even more so by way of Warner Bros.’ Gold Diggers series and 20th Century Fox’s recycling its similar story from Three Blind Mice to Moon Over Miami to Three Little Girls in Blue to How to Marry a Millionaire, right down to 2011’s Monte Carlo with Selena Gomez (also from Fox, though the studio was much changed by then). That familiarity may account for why Goldwyn always counted The Greeks a disappointment and sold it off to some fly-by-nighters. Nevertheless, it holds up well today; the stars are sassy and the Goldwyn gloss is much in evidence.

Conrad in Quest of His Youth (1920) was an appealing romantic dramedy (though the word hadn’t been coined yet) directed by Cecil B. DeMille’s big brother William, based on a 1903 bestseller by British novelist Leonard Merrick. Thomas Meighan starred as a disillusioned, middle-aged British Army officer jaded by service in India and seeking to regain the pleasures of his younger self. He learns, of course (20 years before Thomas Wolfe said it), that he can’t go home again. Then, even further disheartened, he falls in with a down-on-their-luck theatrical troupe, eventually learning that happiness is found in looking forward, not back.

Moss Rose (1947) was a decent enough thriller that nevertheless left a sense that it should have been better. Based on a 1934 novel by the prolific Margaret Gabrielle Vere Long (writing as Joseph Shearing), the picture was evidently Darryl F. Zanick’s attempt to repeat the success of Fox’s earlier ventures into Victorian Gothic suspense, The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945). Indeed, the role of murder suspect Michael Drego was tailor-made for Lodger and Hangover Square star Laird Cregar — who might well have played it if he hadn’t crash-dieted himself to death in 1944. Instead, the role went to Victor Mature — a better actor than he often gets credit for, but, well, Victorian Gothic probably wasn’t part of his skill set.

Then again, if the director had been John Brahm, whose talent for what Andrew Sarris called “mood-drenched melodrama” had made winners out of The Lodger and Hangover Square, Mature might have been able to get with the program. But the director was Gregory Ratoff, who divided his career between the director’s chair and as a character actor playing querulous mittel-European parvenus — and as a director, Ratoff made an excellent mittel-European parvenu.

Peggy Cummins, still licking her wounds over geting canned from Forever Amber, played a music-hall chorus girl investigating the murder of a friend who apparently got too close to the family secrets of Mature’s Drego and his mother Lady Margaret (Ethel Barrymore). Everyone on screen, including Vincent Price as a Scotland Yard detective and Patricia Medina as Mature’s fiancée, gave it their best shot. But the picture failed to find an audience. In a 1950 memo, Darryl Zanuck said it “was a catastrophe, for which I blame myself. Our picture was not as good as the original script and the casting was atrocious. The property lost $1,300,000 net…” Zanuck was too harsh; nothing about Moss Rose was “atrocious”. It was an interesting effort — but it was a bit of a misfire, shooting at a target where the studio had hit the bullseye twice before.

The day ended not with a bang but a whimper: Holy Wednesday (aka Snakes) (1974), produced in San Bernardino, Calif. on a shoestring for the drive-in circuit, it starred ’50s sci-fi stalwart Les Tremayne as an aged hermit siccing his herd of deadly serpents on his enemies. I didn’t stay. I watched about five minutes, enough to persuade me that this was ideal fodder for the robots on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, then I called it a day.

*                         *                         *

There was some important news announced on Saturday by Cinevent chair Michael Haynes (on the left in this picture, in case you need to be told) and Dealers’ Room coordinator Samantha Glasser (the one who isn’t Michael).

Cinevent will return for Memorial Day Weekend 2020, which will be Michael’s last turn in the driver’s seat. At that point he’ll pass the baton to Samantha, who will continue the tradition into 2021 and beyond with a new organization which she is putting together even as you read this — a group that will, no doubt, include a good percentage of the current Cinevent staff. Also at the end of the 2020 convention, the Cinevent name will be retired.

Why retire the name? Well, when Steven Haynes passed away in 2015, he was the last of Cinevent’s original founders, John Baker and John Stingley having gone on before him. Now that Michael Haynes and his mother Barbara are withdrawing from active participation, it’s their wish to take the name with them. I can certainly sympathize and agree with that — but it won’t be easy to come up with a name as clever, as evocative, as…well, as downright cool as that.

As for the new name, Samantha is soliciting suggestions. Submit yours to her at SamanthaKGlasser@gmail.com by June 30, 2019. It’s worth free admission in 2021 if your idea is chosen.

To be concluded…

Cinevent 51 — Day 2

Friday morning at Cinevent started off bright and early with one of the last of 20th Century Fox’s fanciful biopics of figures from the Golden Age of Vaudeville. Earlier years had seen highly fictionalized treatments of the lives of Lillian Russell (1940), songwriter Paul Dresser (My Gal Sal, 1942),  The Dolly Sisters (1945), another songwriter, Joe Howard (I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, 1947), Florodora girl Myrtle McKinley (Mother Wore Tights, 1947), Lotta Crabtree (Golden Girl, 1951) and even John Philip Sousa (Stars and Stripes Forever, 1952). Today’s specimen of the sub-genre was The I Don’t Care Girl (1953), starring Mitzi Gaynor as “the Queen of Vaudeville” Eva Tanguay. And here I’m going to detour into a brief consideration of Eva Tanguay herself, because the truth is she’s vastly more interesting than the movie Fox and producer George Jessel made about her.

In his notes for The I Don’t Care Girl, Richard Barrios compares Eva Tanguay (1878-1947) to Madonna; others have compared her to Lady Gaga. Like those two (the comparison goes), Tanguay parlayed a modest (even routine) song-and-dance talent into superstardom by encasing it in outlandish costumes and outrageous behavior on and off stage. That’s fine as far as it goes, even astute, but it’s interesting that we have to reach 80, even 100 years into Tanguay’s future for comparisons. In 1904, when she made her first big splash, there was simply nothing to compare her to.

The two photos I’ve posted here give a remote idea of her personality on stage. Her outrageousness, too: The picture on the left has an aura of, shall we say, frank invitation that in 1905 must have had men all over America heading straight from the theater to their cold showers. (And these are only a sample; do a Google Images search for her and you’ll find dozens more.)  The titles alone of her signature songs further underline her feverish effect: “I Don’t Care”, of course; also “It’s All Been Done Before But Not the Way I Do It”, “I Want Someone to Go Wild With Me”, “Go As Far As You Like”. Critics and audiences alike stood flabbergasted, not knowing what the hell to make of her, and they loved her for it — or more likely, decided that resistance was futile. Even the occultist crackpot Aleister Crowley said he found her “like the hashish dream of a hermit who is possessed of the devil”, then went on to say: “I could kill myself at this moment for the wild love of her.” For a sharp appraisal of Eva Tanguay’s place in showbiz history, click over to the Slate archive for 2009 and read “Vanishing Act: In search of Eva Tanguay, the first rock star” by Jody Rosen.

If you’ve read Jody Rosen’s article, and if you’ve seen The I Don’t Care Girl, then you have an inkling of what a near-total botch the movie is. Rosen calls it “clunky”; she minces words. Closer to the truth were vaudeville historian Anthony Slide, who called it “dismal”, and Clive Hirschhorn in The Hollywood Musical, who said the main problem was Walter Bullock’s “really lousy script”. The sad part is that 1953 was pretty much the last time that it was possible to make a movie that could have captured Eva Tanguay’s appeal (the way Yankee Doodle Dandy, for all its fiction, captured George M. Cohan’s). In 1953 her heyday was still well within living memory; producer George Jessel very likely knew her personally. Director Lloyd Bacon might have as well.

Not that it would have been easy. The Production Code was still in firm control, and Eva Tanguay’s main selling point was blatantly sexual, a lusty throwing off of the prim strictures of Victorian ladyhood (Rosen says that her dances frequently looked like simulated orgasms), where Cohan’s chief selling point was patriotism, much easier to get through the Breen Office (especially during a war). But it could have been done — just not with Bullock’s script. And, alas, even with a better script, probably not with Mitzi Gaynor either. Gaynor may well have had more talent that Tanguay, but probably not half the personality. Mitzi was basically a pretty-good chorus girl who got some fantastic breaks — sort of a Vera-Ellen, but able to do her own singing.

Clive Hirschhorn says that the role of Eva Tanguay was “tailor-made for Betty Hutton”, and there’s something to that; certainly Betty’s take-no-prisoners approach to a song matched what we know and can hear of Eva’s. Personally, I’d like to have seen Carol Channing take a swing at it, but back then she was still a Broadway personality untried in Hollywood. Another one who surely could have done it was Gwen Verdon, though she had yet to make a name for herself at all; oddly enough, however, she does appear as a specialty dancer in The I Don’t Care Girl‘s “Beale Street Blues” number.

Which brings us to the movie’s saving grace, so far as it has one. According to one version of the story, Darryl F. Zanuck saw an early cut of The I Don’t Care Girl, realized it was a dog, and ordered drastic surgery: he called in Jack Cole to punch up the musical numbers. And for the three numbers Cole staged — “Beale Street Blues”, “The Johnson Rag” and “I Don’t Care” (shown here) — the movie blazes fitfully to life. Of course, when Cole takes over, the vaudeville of 1910 flies out the window while 1950s theatrical jazz dance sashays in the door (other numbers staged by Seymour Felix are truer to the period, if less flamboyantly entertaining). Besides Cole’s work, The I Don’t Care Girl has little to recommend it, although the print shown at Cinevent beautifully conveyed the movie’s other main asset, the splendid Fox Technicolor.

Before we move on, I want to pause a moment and mourn the missed opportunity that was The I Don’t Care Girl. Eva Tanguay was a pop diva 100 years before the term was coined, and wildly popular. She was paid $3,500 a week at a time when a busy dentist earned $2,500 in a year. It’s a shame that we don’t have a better screen memorial to her career. After 1953 the ranks of people who had seen her on stage grew thinner every year, and so did the chance that anyone would give us a do-over. Probably the preeminently perfect woman to play her on screen would have been the Bette Midler of the 1960s and ’70s. (Take another look at those pictures of Eva — Bette Midler, right?) By then the Production Code was history, and a movie could have directly tackled Eva Tanguay’s shenanigans on and off stage. Liza Minnelli might have played her — in fact, in a way, she did, in Cabaret. Lady Gaga could do it today. But by now Eva Tanguay is ancient history. Besides a scratchy 1922 recording of “I Don’t Care” and a single surviving film appearance from 1917, there’s nothing to testify to her fame but yellowed newspaper clippings and a 2012 biography by Andrew L. Erdman. Now it’s not Eva but the audience who doesn’t care.

Much of the rest of the day, until the dinner break anyhow, was almost anticlimactic after the gaudy Technicolor splash of The I Don’t Care Girl. Rocky Mountain Mystery (1935) was a nifty little western whodunnit from a Zane Grey novel, starring Randolph Scott as a mining engineer investigating a string of murders over a Colorado radium mine, with 19-year-old Ann Sheridan as his damsel in distress. Then the Laurel and Hardy short Any Old Port (1935), with The Boys trying to save their own damsel in distress from forced marriage to a brutish innkeeper (the ever-brutish Walter Long), after which Ollie enters Stan in four-round prizefight (what could go wrong?). And after lunch, three more chapters of Hawk of the Wilderness.

Then, just like that, the anticlimactic part of the day was over and Richard Barrios was back to introduce “Songs in the Dark — Movie Musicals Early and Later”. This wasn’t a feature, but a collection of numbers from movie musicals great, good and not so hot. The not-so-hot was only too memorably represented (if only we could forget!) by the indescribable “Web of Love” number from the ghastly The Great Gabbo (1929), always good for a horrified laugh. Most of Richard’s clips were better than that, of course. A few of my own favorites are represented here. In top-to-bottom order: (1) Myrna Loy during her exotic/erotic phase as Azuri in the first screen version of The Desert Song (1929), doing what can only be called a hootchie-kootchie dance and singing a song whose title escapes me (and isn’t identified in any of the references I consulted). Never mind; it was a lot of fun, and Myrna pulled it off surprisingly well; (2) Carol Channing in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), in which she was nominated for (and robbed of) a supporting actress Oscar. Here she sings “Jazz Baby”, Exhibit A in why I think she’d have made a terrific Eva Tanguay; (3) Gene Nelson (Richard’s personal nominee for the most underrated musical performer in movie history) launching into “Am I in Love?” in She’s Working Her Way Through College (1952), an amazing combination of song, dance and gymnastics that belongs on the short list of the greatest solo numbers ever; and (4) Ginger Rogers and Arthur Jarrett singing “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” in Sitting Pretty (1933). Right after this chorus, dance director Larry Ceballos launched a production number with dozens of scantily-clad fan dancers that made Busby Berkeley look positively prudish.

Next was The Pride of the Clan (1917), a Mary Pickford vehicle from 1917, artfully directed by Maurice Tourneur. Mary played Marget MacTavish, a plucky young Scottish lass who finds herself the head of her island clan when her fisherman father dies at sea. The plot was melodramatic, with Marget’s sweetheart (Matt Moore) revealed to be the lost scion of a noble family, and Marget breaking both their hearts by ordering him away “for his own good”. Still, the picture dripped with authentic atmosphere, and Mary was as appealing as ever.

After dinner we saw a real crowd-pleaser, and a highlight of the weekend: Wake Up and Live (1937). I here include the notes I wrote for the Cinevent program:

To most Cinevent attendees and classic film enthusiasts, no doubt, Wake Up and Live is simply an Alice Faye musical. Well, of course, it certainly is that, and one of Alice’s best, helping to cement her position near the top of 20th Century Fox’s contract stars (right under Shirley Temple). But Alice wasn’t the main selling point in 1937. Top billing at the time went to the picture’s amusing rendition of the ersatz feud between gossip columnist Walter Winchell and bandleader Ben Bernie, who were billed in that order. Alice came in third.

The best of friends in real life and deft showmen in their different ways, Winchell and Bernie understood that a mutual-admiration society wasn’t likely to generate much publicity. So on their respective radio shows they began throwing brickbats instead of bouquets at each other, setting the pattern for playful radio “feuds” to come — W.C. Fields/Charlie McCarthy, Jack Benny/Fred Allen, Bob Hope/Bing Crosby. Their bantering over NBC’s Blue Network proved so titillating (some people even took it seriously) that it seemed only natural when Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck offered to extend the badinage to the big screen, buttressing the two men’s ease in front of the camera with the studio’s story and production values and supporting talent.

Actually, strictly speaking, even the Winchell-Bernie feud had to yield top billing. That went to journalist Dorothea Brande’s 1936 motivational bestseller Wake Up and Live!, which (shorn of its exclamation point) supplied the picture’s title and the ostensible basis for Curtis Kenyon’s story and Harry Tugend and Jack Yellen’s script. This may in fact be the first example of Hollywood cashing in on the popularity of a nonfiction book by producing a movie using nothing but the title. If it was the first, it wouldn’t be the last; see 1964’s Sex and the Single Girl, 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), and 1973’s The Naked Ape, to name a few.

Ms. Brande’s self-help book with its mantra for success — “Act as if it were impossible to fail” — provided the grist for the picture’s story of a radio station’s “Wake Up and Live” girl Alice Huntley (Faye) helping hapless vaudevillian Eddie Kane (Jack Haley) overcome the mike fright that’s keeping him from radio stardom. When Eddie unwittingly sings into a “live” mike, then Alice surreptitiously broadcasts his “therapy” sessions, he becomes a media sensation as “The Phantom Troubadour”, setting up the parallel plotline of Winchell and Bernie trying to one-up and embarrass each other by being the first to discover the Phantom’s identity. Meanwhile, Eddie sings blithely on, thinking he’s merely building up confidence beside Alice’s piano, never suspecting that his every note is being devoured by millions in the “Federal Broadcasting Company” radio audience.

Playing the picture’s mike-frightened crooner, Jack Haley had his best role to date, though as a matter of fact, he was a last-minute substitute. Just as Alice Huntley was being played by Alice Faye and Patsy Kane by Patsy Kelly, Eddie Kane was originally scheduled to be played by another Eddie: Eddie Cantor. Cantor was on the lot filming another Tugend/Yellen script, Ali Baba Goes to Town, and Wake Up and Live was supposed to be his follow-up vehicle. But according to Hal Erickson’s From Radio to the Big Screen, negotiations fell through. Erickson doesn’t say why. Maybe the issue was money. Or Cantor may have balked at being billed under Winchell and Bernie. Or — and this may be the most likely reason — maybe he resented the thought of having his singing dubbed by rising young band singer and movie “ghost vocalist” Buddy Clark. Cantor had made his name singing in vaudeville, but he was quirky and comical, hardly the troubadour type. For that matter, neither was Haley, though his own singing was perfectly fine. Whatever the reason, Cantor was out, and the role went to Haley, a team player who didn’t mind getting sixth billing and lip-synching to another man’s voice.

With reliable direction by Sidney Lanfield (who always knew how to stay out of the way of the talent), a deep bench of comic supporting players, and some sprightly songs by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel — plus a couple of dazzling tap numbers by the Condos Brothers, Steve and Nick (whose movie career was far too brief) — Wake Up and Live was tailor-made for success. It breezed to big box office, breaking the one-day record at New York’s 5,900-seat Roxy Theatre when it opened on August 23, 1937.

It proved a hit with the critics, too. In the New York Times, Frank S. Nugent borrowed a catch-phrase from Winchell himself, calling the picture “a blessed event.” He praised just about everything, singling out Winchell for having “the assurance of an ex-vaudeville hoofer” (“And he carries on his feud with Ben Bernie just as though he meant it.”). Meanwhile, Variety’s Abel Green called it a “sock picture” with “corking Gordon and Revel songs” and “whammo off-screen singing” by Buddy Clark. Amid all the showbiz slang, Green also astutely tagged Wake Up and Live as “the first really good satire on radio” (and it’s still just about the best). Even The New Yorker’s John Mosher said, “Infinite seems the number of blessings of this opulent spring. Among them we must note ‘Wake Up and Live’…” When the perennially sniffy Mosher loosens up that much, you know you’ve got a winner on your hands.

Wake Up and Live was followed by Do Detectives Think? (1927), a silent short with Laurel and Hardy as two who don’t, and Wagon Tracks (1919). In this one, William S. Hart plays a frontier guide who agrees to lead a wagon train along the Santa Fe Trail. His motive is personal: He means to get to the bottom of why his brother wound up dead after catching two card sharps cheating him at poker, and the two cheats (plus the sister of one of them) are traveling with the train. The resolution of the story was inconclusive and unsatisfying, but the movie was vividly authentic, reminding us that such wagon trains were still within living memory in 1919.

The last movie of the day was one I’ve been curious about for some time: Joe MacBeth (1955). As must surely be obvious, it was an updating of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play, set in the underworld of American organized crime in a city unidentified but clearly meant to be taken for Chicago. To be honest, most of the reviews and comments I’d read over the years weren’t too complimentary (Leonard Maltin: “Occasionally amusing…”; Leslie Halliwell: “Almost too bad to be funny…”), suggesting the idea was better than the execution. I was still curious, but I wasn’t expecting much.

I was misinformed. Joe MacBeth is a nice, tight little thriller. Stars Paul Douglas and Ruth Roman (as the MacBeths) and co-writer Philip Yordan were all Americans, but it was otherwise a British production. (Also American was expat Bonar Colleano as Lennie, a combination of Shakespeare’s Macduff and Malcolm. Colleano was a former acrobat who moved to England with his circus family in 1936. By 1955 he had found his niche playing Americans in British movies and plays, but his life was cut short three years later by a car crash on his way home from an engagement.)

The picture was directed by Ken Hughes (who also co-wrote with Yordan) with surprising energy, considering the leaden duds he would later turn out in the 1960s and ’70s: Of Human Bondage (’64), Casino Royale (’67), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (’68), Cromwell (1970), Sextette (’77). Here he seems energized by the low budget (and possibly by Douglas and Roman’s enthusiastic scenery-chewing). Joe MacBeth closed out Day 2 on an up-note.

To be continued…

Cinevent 51 — Day 1, Part 2

The first silent of the weekend was The Prairie Pirate (1925), a Harry Carey western, and far from his best. (You can always tell that a movie star has really arrived when they’re expected to carry a story like this. By 1925 Harry Carey had not only arrived, he’d definitely set up housekeeping.) Carey played Brian Delaney, a cattle rancher in Old California who comes home one day to find that his sister Ruth (Jean Dumas), besieged in their isolated home by marauding bandits, has committed suicide rather than submit to a fate worse than death. The only clues: a hasty note from Ruth telling Brian “they’ll never take me ali–” and some distinctive black cigarette butts. (Ruth actually knew the outlaw leader’s name, Aguilar, but somehow neglected to include it in her note.)

In the next scene — the reason why is unexplained — Brian has become an outlaw calling himself the Yellow Seal. His life of crime consists mainly of raiding saloons all around the area and confiscating the establishments’ cigarette butts (actual title card: “Now bring me every ash tray in the place — muy pronto!“). This heinous spree of wanton lawlessness has put a $5,000 price on his head, dead or alive — a pretty draconian bounty for cleaning out ash trays, I’d say.

At the same time, Brian (as the Yellow Seal) meets and romances the daughter (Trilby Clark) of a local ranchero (Robert Edeson). She in turn is being coerced into marrying a saloon owner (Lloyd Whitlock) who has won her father’s hacienda at his crooked gaming tables — and who is also in cahoots with the bandit Aguilar.

Harry Carey is always welcome, of course, but that’s about as much time as we need to spend on this nonsense. Carey gets to do some nifty riding and fighting, though both he and Trilby Clark are all-too-clearly doubled in the picture’s barreling-downstream-toward-the-waterfall climax (which comes to an awfully hasty resolution; did they run out of money in 1925, or is footage missing now?).

The next two movies on the program were considerably more rewarding. First came Sunbonnet Sue (1945), a modest but entirely winning little Gay Nineties musical from Monogram Pictures. An ebullient Gale Storm played the title character, setting out on a showbiz career by singing in a Bowery saloon run by her father (George Cleveland) — to the horror of her stuffy Fifth Avenue aunt (Edna Holland), who vows to torpedo this vulgar stain on the family honor before it exposes her own humble roots. Monogram’s entry in the spate of nostalgic turn-of-the-20th-century musicals epitomized by Meet Me in St. Louis over at MGM, Sunbonnet Sue had enough charm to make you wish that the studio had shaken off Poverty Row altogether and sprung for a color production — if not Technicolor, then maybe Cinecolor or one of the other bargain-basement processes. Oh well, baby steps — Monogram was hoping to move into A-pictures eventually, but it wouldn’t do to go too far too fast. Still, Sunbonnet Sue was a nice effort, leaning heavily on old songs that, if not yet in the public domain, were at least well-worn enough that the rights could be had for…well, for a song. The picture even managed to snag an Oscar nomination for Edward J. Kay’s musical scoring (it lost to MGM’s Anchors Aweigh).

Next, after the Thursday dinner break, came the genuinely unusual, little-seen To Mary — with Love (1936). Based on a two-part novella by Richard Sherman that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in late 1935, the picture told the story of a marriage, or at least the first ten years of it (which for a while look like they will be the last ten years of it). We first meet Jock and Mary Wallace (Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy) on the evening of their wedding day — which also happens to be Election Night 1925, so their own little after-wedding party at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel is swamped by a much bigger party celebrating the election of Jimmy Walker as mayor of New York. Helping them celebrate is Bill Hallam (Ian Hunter), Jock’s best man (and a silent torch-bearer for Mary) and a young woman the three have just met that night, Kitty Brant (Claire Trevor), who will become an intimate friend — at one point, perhaps a little too intimate.

From there the picture follows the ups and downs of the Wallace marriage for the next ten years, with major moments set against a background of significant events in America — the Dempsey/Tunney fight, Charles Lindbergh’s flight to Paris, the 1929 stock market crash, etc. Through it all, Bill Hallam is Jock and Mary’s staunch friend, conscience and protector, helping them navigate the rough spots (and some of them are rough indeed), despite the fact that he’s in love with Mary and she knows it. Well-directed by John Cromwell, To Mary — with Love told its story straightforwardly and with a refreshing (not to say astonishing) lack of melodrama or soap opera. Baxter, Loy and Hunter each gave one of their personal-best performances. According to the program notes by Richard Barrios (who also introduced the screening), this unique picture has been kept out of circulation for decades, apparently because of issues concerning the rights to Richard Sherman’s original story, so this screening at Cinevent was a rare opportunity to catch up with it.

Another near-lost picture was the Laurel and Hardy short Duck Soup (1927) (not to be confused with the Marx Brothers feature). This one was believed lost for years, which was a pity, until a print surfaced in Belgium in 1974, which was a blessing, because it’s probably the earliest short in which The Boys played something like the characters they would soon become famous for.

After that it was yet another picture based on a Saturday Evening Post story (“The Spoils of War” by Hugh Wiley). This was Behind the Front (1926), a Paramount silent comedy starring Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton as soldiers who become best friends in the trenches of World War I, never suspecting that Hatton is the pickpocket who stole Beery’s watch, and whom Beery was chasing until they both got sidetracked into enlisting. What I saw looked pretty good, but a little Wallace Berry goes a long way with me, so I watched a little, then bailed out to browse the dealers’ room until they closed.

Besides, I didn’t want to miss the last movie of the day, The Amazing Mr. Williams (1939); the thought of Melvyn Douglas and Joan Blondell in the same picture was just too good to pass up. This was one of Columbia’s entries in Hollywood’s many efforts to duplicate the combination of sophisticated banter and murder-mystery suspense of William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies. This time, Douglas played an ace police detective who can solve the toughest cases in nothing flat; Blondell was his fiancée, the mayor’s secretary, ever getting stood up when he’s called away on yet another important case. Both of them get embroiled in the case at hand — which defies easy synopsis, so I won’t even try. Anyhow, the mystery was complicated enough to hold the interest, the love-play amusing, and the supporting cast stalwart: Clarence Kolb as Douglas’s conniving boss, Ruth Donnelly as (what else?) the heroine’s wise-cracking best friend, Jonathan Hale as the mayor, Edward Brophy, Donald MacBride, Don Beddoe, John Wray. Nobody, no studio, was ever quite able to duplicate that Thin Man magic, but watching them try made for a lot of fun in the 1930s and ’40s, and this was a good example.  

So opening day of Cinevent drew to a close. On to Day 2, Friday, next time.

To be continued…

Cinevent 51 – Day 1, Part 1

Cinevent this year began with something new: A tour of Columbus’s Ohio Theatre. The tour cost extra, and ran late enough to conflict with the first show in the screening room — but it was worth it on both counts.

The theater is located on State Street, across the street from the south entrance to the Ohio State House, on the site of the original Columbus City Hall. Commissioned by Marcus Loew (who didn’t live to see it), it was designed by Thomas W. Lamb, one of America’s foremost theater architects of the 20th century. Some of Lamb’s other designs included: In New York, the Academy of Music (later the Palladium), the Capitol, and the Ziegfeld (the original one, at 6th Avenue and 54th Street); in San Francisco, the Fox; in Boston, the B.F. Keith Memorial (now the Boston Opera House) and the Orpheum. The Ohio opened on St. Patrick’s Day 1928 with the Greta Garbo silent The Divine Woman.

As a Loew’s Inc. theater seating 3,000 and lavishly appointed in Spanish Baroque style, the Ohio thrived as a first-run venue for MGM pictures, even after the U.S. v. Paramount consent decree divested the studios of their theater chains, until suburban sprawl and changing patterns in entertainment (read: television) spelled trouble for the big downtown picture palaces. The Ohio officially closed in February 1969 with the Michael Caine World War II picture Play Dirty. At that point the Ohio appeared doomed; a local developer planned to demolish it (and the adjacent Grand Theatre) in favor of a high-rise office building to be built on the site.

Fortunately, a groundswell of local Save-the-Ohio sentiment led to the creation of the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA). CAPA harnessed public sentiment and the support of business and government leaders to purchase the Ohio and set it on the path to restoration to its original appearance (done in stages throughout the 1970s), with shows and concerts all the while to keep the ball rolling. Next door, the Grand Theatre was eventually torn down; the site is now Galbreath Pavilion, an annex to the Ohio providing additional lobby space, offices, and rehearsal rooms.

CAPA’s success with the Ohio enabled it to expand its activities, even beyond Columbus. Locally, it now also operates the Palace (another Thomas Lamb creation three blocks away), the Lincoln, and Columbus’s oldest surviving theater (since 1896), the Southern. The Ohio Theatre remains CAPA’s flagship and base of operations, and rightly so — as these pictures attest, it’s a breathtaking sight to see (it’s the only theater I’ve ever seen with not just a second, but a third floor lobby). I’ll point to CAPA the next time America’s coastal elites decide to lord it over their cultural inferiors in flyover country. I would also point to such theaters as the Fox in San Francisco, Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles, New York’s Roxy and Ziegfeld, and the Ambassador in Washington, DC — only I can’t, because they don’t exist anymore.

As I said before, the Ohio Theatre tour ran long enough that I missed the first event in the screening room, Chapters 1-3 of this year’s serial, Republic’s Hawk of the Wilderness (1938). This may have prevented me from tuning in to the serial’s wavelength — whatever that is. So perhaps I should reserve final judgment until I’ve had a chance to see the whole thing from the beginning. All I can say right now — having seen Chapters 4-6 on Day 2, then the final three on Day 4 — is that I’m not particularly eager to catch up with what I missed.

Based on a 1935 series written by William L. Chester (a sort of minor-league Edgar Rice Burroughs imitator) and published in the pulp magazine Blue Book, Hawk of the Wilderness opens with a scientific expedition in search of a lost-world-type island somewhere north of the Arctic Circle, yet warmed to a near-tropic clime by a volcano. When the ship founders in a storm, the expedition’s leader (whose wife and infant son are along for the ride) throws overboard a bottle with a desperate message for his colleague Dr. Munro. He and his wife go down with the ship, but his Native American assistant (Noble Johnson, the native chief of King Kong‘s Skull Island) makes it to the island with the scientist’s son.

Twenty-five years later the child has grown into Kioga, or “Hawk of the Wilderness” (Herman Brix, still a year away from changing his name to Bruce Bennett), so called by the island’s natives (whose ancestors remained there thousands of years ago while others continued on to the mainland, eventually to be known as “American Indians”). Kioga has been befriended by one of the locals, while others, led by a malcontent named (so help me) Yellow Weasel, want to kill him to appease their volcano god. Into all this comes a rescue expedition, led by Dr. Munro, the addressee of that long-ago message in a bottle, the message having been finally delivered by a seafaring criminal masquerading as a fisherman, who sniffs the possibility of treasure on the island and is just waiting for a chance to make his move.

As that summary suggests, Hawk of the Wilderness is an odd mash-up of Tarzan of the Apes, The Last of the Mohicans, and Treasure Island. It has a good reputation, if Bob Bloom’s program notes and some comments on the IMDb can be believed, but I’m afraid I wasn’t able to get into it myself. For such a plot-heavy story — Dr. Munro’s daughter Beth and Kioga fall in love, alliances are built and broken as characters hunt treasure, flee from or fight war parties, and contend with the erupting volcano — I found it oddly uneventful; certainly compared to last year’s The Masked Marvel, whose nonstop fistfights, chases, crashes and explosions made it a textbook example of “action-packed”. But to be fair, I only saw half of this year’s chapter-play — and just the second and fourth quarters at that. So I defer to Bob Bloom’s judgment: “Hawk of the Wilderness is a rarely-seen serial. It is available only through grey-market dealers on eBay. It’s fast-paced adventure with 12 chapters that will keep you coming back throughout Cinevent.” (I’ve ordered one of those grey-market eBay videos to fill the gaps in my viewing; if I have anything to add about it, I’ll post an update.)

After Hawk of the Wilderness came the first feature film of this year’s Cinevent: John Ford’s Four Men and a Prayer (1938). Ford was on a roll in those days, although this particular picture came during what his biographer Scott Eyman called a “temporary malaise” — after Ford’s first Oscar for The Informer (’35) and the twin high points of Wee Willie Winkie and The Hurricane (both ’37), and just before the string of jewels and outright masterpieces that would run from Stagecoach (’39) through How Green Was My Valley (’41).

Four Men and a Prayer hardly deserves mention in the same breath with those, but it’s still pretty good; if nothing else, it has a certain curiosity value as Ford’s only murder mystery (at least, as far as I can recall). The four men of the title are Richard Greene, George Sanders, David Niven and William Henry as the sons of C. Aubrey Smith, a colonel of the British Army in India who has been found guilty of dereliction of duty in bringing on a massacre. Drummed out of the service in disgrace, he returns to England and calls a family council. He tells the boys he was the victim of a frame-up (of course they never doubted him) and he has the papers to prove it. But before he can tell them more, he is found dead — with his briefcase empty.

The coroner declares his death a guilty suicide, but the colonel’s sons know better, and they set out to clear his name — with the assistance of top-billed Loretta Young as a wealthy heiress with eyes for Greene. Their investigation sends the brothers (and Loretta) globe-trotting off in all directions, from India to Buenos Aires to Alexandria — all, of course, without leaving the safety of the 20th Century Fox backlot (which has an exotic appeal all its own). Along the way, Ford’s feel for pacing and eye for striking pictorial compositions keep raising the movie above the humdrum level of Richard Sherman, Sonya Levien and Walter Ferris’s script (from a novel by David Garth), especially in an episode during the ruthless quashing of a South American revolution. The resolution of the plot, if not exactly surprising, is at least satisfying — and, after one more “malaise” picture (Submarine Patrol later in ’38), Ford would move on to Stagecoach and his white-hot phase.

And Day 1 had just begun. I’ll continue with the Thursday lineup next time.

To be continued…

Cinevent 51 – Prelude

Once again, on the Wednesday night before the first day of Cinevent, some of us early arrivals in Columbus attended a screening at the Wexner Center for the Arts on the Ohio State Campus. The theme this year was “Audrey Hepburn X 2”, and the program consisted of pictures at opposite ends of Audrey’s career, one of her last (Robin and Marian, 1976) followed by one of her first (Secret People, 1952). Personally, I would have preferred that the Wexner Center take the program in chronological order rather than the reverse.

On second thought, let me rephrase that. I would have preferred that they not screen Robin and Marian at all, for one simple reason: It’s lousy. It was lousy in 1976 and it was lousy last Wednesday in Columbus. Besides, if any Ohio State students really needed to see it, Turner Classic Movies has been showing and promoting it for months far beyond its merits.

Purporting to chronicle the last days of Sean Connery’s Robin Hood and Audrey’s Maid Marian, Robin and Marian is easily the worst movie either star ever made — mean-spirited, cheap and shoddy. The mean spirit permeated James Goldman’s sneering script. As for the cheapness, well, there was really no excuse for that. The picture’s budget was $5,000,000 — quite respectable for 1976 — yet it takes place in a twelfth-century England where the population is about 35, all of them dressed in cast-off blankets and tin-plate armor that would be hooted out of any meeting of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

The shoddiness came thanks to the director, the less-than-mediocre Richard Lester, who could never stage the simplest action without zoom-lensing and quick-cutting it into incoherence; without overusing his telephoto lens until his movies looked literally flat; without ham-handed “comedy” that made his actors look like small-time boobs. In a career that ran from 1954 to 1991, Lester made exactly one decent movie — but for many people, that one covered a multitude of sins.

The picture, of course, was A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and Lester got more credit for it than he deserved. When it came out in July ’64 the Beatles were widely regarded as just four lucky yobbos from Liverpool who had stumbled into a freakish fame. Most everyone who wasn’t a teenage girl assumed it would blow over in a year and all four would be moved to the Where Are They Now File. A Hard Day’s Night‘s stars were assumed to be nothing special; in time, of course, the over-21 world would know better, but for now Lester got credit for making the Fab Four so appealing. The picture also had an excellent screenplay by Alun Owen, so smooth it seemed to have been ad-libbed on the spot. Unfortunately for Owen, it suffered the fate of all such scripts: Lester got credit for that too.

But I digress; back to Robin and Marian. Having seen it in 1976, I didn’t care if I never saw it again, but I supposed once every 43 years wouldn’t kill me. Well, now I’m done; if anybody’s still screening this turkey in 2062, I’ll be busy.

After intermission the Wexner Center redeemed itself with a much worthier effort. Secret People may be remembered chiefly as one of Audrey Hepburn’s first substantial roles (and the one that led directly to her breakthrough in Roman Holiday the next year), but the picture really belongs to Valentina Cortese (or “Cortesa”, as the Brits and Americans preferred to bill her in those days). She and Audrey play Maria Brentano and her younger sister Elenora (Nora), refugees in 1930 from an oppressive dictatorship in their unnamed foreign country. (Their names suggest Mussolini’s Italy, but the dictator is the neutrally-named General Galbern.) Their father, a Gandhi-esque dissident, has smuggled the girls to a friend in London. Shortly after their arrival, they learn that their father has been executed by the Galbern regime.

Seven years later, the two are naturalized British subjects, their surname anglicized to Brent. Maria is unexpectedly reunited with her former boyfriend Louis (Serge Reggiani), who recruits her into a plot to assasinate General Galbern on a visit to London. When the plan goes awry and leads to innocent death, it begins to dawn on Maria that Louis and his cohorts are nothing more than terrorists, as ruthless and callous toward human life as the regime they’re plotting against. Maria’s ambition to be a writer, and Nora’s to be a dancer, mean nothing to them in their lust for blood.

Secret People was directed and co-written by Thorold Dickinson (1903-84), a British filmmaker whose reputation has undergone a bit of a renaissance in recent years. Never prolific (“It’s terribly difficult to direct a film you don’t want to make,” he once said, “that’s why I’ve made so few.”), Dickinson is probably best known over here for his excellent 1940 picture Gaslight, which MGM fortunately failed to destroy when they remade it in 1944. Secret People isn’t entirely successful as either a political thriller or a psychological drama, but it poses intriguing questions, the plot takes some unexpected turns, and Valentina Cortese makes up in screen presence for what the colorless Serge Reggiani lacks. Plus, of course, it offers a glimpse of Audrey Hepburn on the cusp of immortality, indulging her first love, ballet.

In fact, the Audrey Hepburn connection would bear fruit later, once Cinevent itself was under way. I’ll get to that in its own good time.

To be continued…

“Don’t Stay Away Too Long…”

“G’bye, Mary Poppins,” says Dick Van Dyke’s Bert as the Practically Perfect Nanny sails away from No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964). “Don’t stay away too long…”

Well, she did stay away too long. But at long last Mary Poppins Returns has finally arrived, a sequel 54 years after the movie it sequelizes — surely some sort of record. I won’t go into great detail about the movie here, for two reasons: (1) the focus of Cinedrome is Classic Hollywood, not the current movie scene; and (2) the pleasures of Mary Poppins Returns are best discovered without any preparation beyond what you can get from having seen Mary Poppins in the first place.

But I will say this: Mary Poppins Returns is manifestly the best and most enduring movie of 2018. Does that sound brash? So be it. In my defense, I call as my witness generations yet unborn, who will know and cherish this picture long after whatever wins the Oscar this coming Sunday — and any other movie released last year — is a Trivial Pursuit answer that nobody gets. That this exquisite specimen of the moviemaker’s craft scores 78 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and 66 on Metacritic only tells me that 22 percent of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and 34 percent on Metacritic, are fools who don’t know a great movie musical when it stares them in the face; I feel sorry for them. (Meanwhile, on RT, Bumblebee scores 93 percent fresh — which says all you need to know about the current state of film criticism.)

That’s all I have to say here about Mary Poppins Returns. I mention it mainly as a way to segue into a discussion of why it took 54 years for us to get a sequel to Mary Poppins at all. Because the fact is, we could have had Mary Poppins Returns, or something like it, fully half a century ago. It certainly would have starred Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, and might even have had the rest of the cast — Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber, right down to Reginald Owen as Admiral Boom. That this alternate-universe sequel never happened was due to two reasons: (1) Walt Disney died too soon, and (2) P.L. Travers lived much too long.

Before I get to Mary Poppins, a few words about Walt Disney. In the community college Film History and Introduction to Film classes I teach, I have a standard lecture I deliver when the subject comes up, as it always will, of Disney’s place in the art and history of moving pictures. Generally, that lecture runs something like this:

Some years ago, the arts editor on the paper where I was a film critic asked me: Who did I consider the most influential artist of the 20th century? I’m sure she expected me to name Pablo Picasso, or Salvador Dali, or Jackson Pollock. Or, moving to other arts, possibly James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neill or Ernest Hemingway. Or, sticking just to movies, maybe John Ford, Orson Welles, or even D.W. Griffith.

I didn’t even have to think about it. There’s not even a close second, I told her; the most influential artist of the 20th century is Walt Disney. All she could say to that was, “Well, if you consider Disney an artist…” “Well, if you don’t,” I told her, “you’re wrong.”

To me this is not a matter of opinion but a plain fact. Critics and artists may groan at the thought, but merely by inventing the theme park Walt Disney had an influence on American and world culture that Picasso or Hemingway could only dream of — and theme parks are far from all there was to Disney. If there’s one filmmaker from the 1920s — and ’30s, and ’40s, and ’50s, and ’60s — with whose movies you are reasonably familiar, it’s going to be Walt Disney.

Now I’m not talking about the Disney Company. I’m talking about Walt Disney the man — born 1901, died 1966. He died when your grandparents were the age you are now; I know because I’m old enough to be your grandfather and I was 18 when Walt Disney died. It was an occasion of not national, but world-wide mourning. Your grandparents grew up on Walt Disney’s movies. And so did your great-grandparents, and so did your parents — and so did you.

And, I’ll bet, so will your grandchildren. Someday you’ll be babysitting your grandkids, and you’ll turn on whatever people are using to watch movies when that day comes, and you’ll put on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Lady and the Tramp or Mary Poppins, and you’ll watch it with them, seeing it through a child’s eyes again just as you did when you first saw it at their age. And you’ll remember. That’s one of the things that makes Walt Disney one of the greatest artists America has ever produced.

And by the way, if anybody tells you otherwise, don’t listen to them, because there’s something wrong with their definition of art.

I transition now from my classroom lecture on Walt Disney back to a consideration of his final masterpiece. 

I saw Mary Poppins for the first time in early December 1964 at the Fox Senator Theatre, the first-run venue for all Disney pictures when they came to Sacramento. I remember it was the same night as the city’s Christmas Parade down K Street right in front of the theater; our showing turned out to be sold out, so my date and I killed a couple of hours watching the parade, window shopping, and helium-talking from a balloon we bought at a stand outside the entrance to F.W. Woolworth’s.

Finally, we got in to see the movie, and as we came out I had a thought that had never come to me after a movie before: “I’ve just seen a classic.”

Now I’d seen plenty of first-run classics up to that point: Cinderella, The War of the Worlds, The King and I, Mister Roberts, The Ten Commandments, Around the World in 80 Days, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. But I was four to ten years old when I saw those, and four-to-ten-year-olds just don’t think in terms of classic anything. This, at age 16, was the first time the conscious thought came to me immediately as I left the theater.

I was a bit surprised, a couple of months later, when the Oscar nominations came out, and “Chim Chim Cher-ee” was nominated for best song. The song I’d been humming as I left the theater that night wasn’t “Chim Chim Cher-ee” but “Jolly Holiday”, the one Bert (and half the animal kingdom) sings as he and Mary Poppins stroll through the sidewalk chalk picture. The song’s “Once in Love with Amy” lilt was simply irresistible — plus, of course, it goes on for nearly 15 minutes.

As all the world now knows, “Chim Chim Cher-ee” went on to win the Oscar, one of two that Robert and Richard Sherman won for writing Mary Poppins‘s music. By awards night I’d seen the picture a couple more times, and I better understood why “Chim Chim Cher-ee” won. It wasn’t until many years later, with decades of hindsight, that I came to believe as I do now: The nomination, and the award, should have gone to “Feed the Birds”. For my money, that’s the most beautiful song ever written for a Walt Disney picture, and that’s saying something. I’m not surprised that it was a particular favorite of Walt’s, or that he often asked the Shermans to play it to help him unwind at the end of a busy week. It’s probably no coincidence that it’s also the song most directly inspired by the original Mary Poppins stories — and the song that finally persuaded author P.L. Travers to go along with making Mary Poppins a musical.

And this brings me to Walt Disney’s secret weapon on Mary Poppins. Or weapons, I should say: Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman. Like writer Lawrence Edward Watkin on Darby O’Gill and the Little People, the Shermans were hired for a specific project, then assigned to others when that project had to go on a back burner. Watkin’s script for Darby O’Gill was delayed 12 years, during which he was put to work on Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, The Great Locomotive Chase and others. The Sherman brothers didn’t have to wait quite that long to see Mary Poppins in production, but they were still sidetracked onto incidental songs for other projects — The Absent-Minded Professor, Big Red, The Sword in the Stone, The Miracle of the White Stallions, etc. — while Disney was courting P.L. Travers. 

“The Boys”, as they quickly became known around the studio, had been handed a copy of the first Mary Poppins book early on, and they were very much in synch with Disney’s thinking on Travers’ episodic, essentially plotless novel — when they compared notes, they saw that they and he had marked off the same six chapters for inclusion in a prospective movie — and story/song sessions with writer Don Da Gradi went well.

Bob and Dick Sherman were pleased with, and even proud of, what they’d written for Mary Poppins, and rightly so. Let’s not mince words; what they turned out is arguably the greatest score ever written for an original film musical. To my way of thinking, its only serious rivals are the ones for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Wizard of Oz. (To be honest, The Wizard of Oz would probably get most people’s vote. But it wouldn’t get mine.)

By the time Travers and Disney finally closed the deal — with Travers to receive $100,000 against five percent of the gross earnings from any eventual film, plus complete script approval — DaGradi and the Shermans were pretty pleased with what they’d come up with. They were sure (as Dick Sherman put it years later) that Mrs. Travers would be “bowled over” when she heard what they had for her.

They reckoned without P.L. Travers. “Bowled over” wasn’t in her vocabulary — unless it was something she did to other people. And she was about to do it to Don DaGradi and Robert and Richard Sherman. We’ll get into that next time.

To be continued…

Catting Around

INTRODUCTORY NOTE: I wish I could take credit for this post, but I can’t. For the first time since I began Cinedrome, I’m presenting a guest blogger. The writer was a student in my Fall 2018 Introduction to Film Studies class at the college where I’m an adjunct instructor in Film and Media Studies. As I tell my Intro to Film students, my philosophy is that the best way to introduce them to film is to introduce them to films; thus I prefer to show them complete movies rather than excerpts. It’s all well and good to study individual sequences from movies you’ve seen, but if you haven’t seen the movie, showing part of it is like handing you a quarter-cup of Hershey’s Cocoa and calling it fudge.

In an 80-minute class period, finding movies to screen can be a challenge. So a major component of the class is to spend time with the films of Val Lewton, the legendary producer who turned out a series of extraordinarily intelligent B horror movies at RKO Radio during the 1940s — all of which ran between 65 and 75 minutes. An essay assignment on the final exam asked students to analyze any two of the five Lewton pictures they saw in class.

One student answered that assignment with a remarkable piece of film criticism, one of the best commentaries on Lewton’s unique body of work that I’ve ever read. I present that essay here for the enjoyment (and enlightenment) of Cinedrome readers.

I think it’s best if I don’t identify the student by name, or even by gender. Still, a few anonymous details won’t be out of order. This was the student’s first semester of college. He/she took the class “to learn more about the way movies/music videos/TV shows are made” and named some favorite movies: Roman Holiday, 10 Things I Hate About You,  Lady Bird.  The student has seen King Kong (1933), Gone With the Wind, West Side Story, The Sound of Music and Schindler’s List, but not Citizen Kane, Dr. Strangelove or Pulp Fiction; has seen the first installment of The Lord of the Rings but not the second or third.

And with that, here is the essay prompt from the exam, followed by the student’s essay. I have corrected minor errors of spelling, grammar and punctuation, and added actors’ names in parentheses where appropriate; otherwise I’ve changed nothing.

 *                         *                         *

Producer Val Lewton was noted for his “psychological” horror movies, replacing the usual movie vampires, werewolves and other monsters with explorations of the darker reaches of the human psyche. We saw five of Lewton’s movies in class: Cat People (1942, d: Jacques Tourneur), I Walked with a Zombie (1943, d: Tourneur), The Curse of the Cat People (1944, d: Gunther von Fritsch, Robert Wise), The Body Snatcher (1945, d: Wise) and Isle of the Dead (1945, d: Mark Robson). Discuss the psychological aspects of any two of these films.

Val Lewton’s movies were known for having supernatural aspects, yet always ending with the common message that the evils of the world were not found in monstrous identities, but in humans themselves. In Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944), both movies are heavy with psychological themes and explore individuals on a deeper level.

In Cat People the story is of a young man, Oliver (Kent Smith), falling for a mysterious designer named Irena (Simone Simon). Irena is reserved, and tells her husband there are certain things he cannot do, like kiss her. She is fearful of her past, which she hides from him, and is terribly afraid that she will turn into a monstrous cat that will put everyone around her in danger. She asks her husband to listen to her and to believe her when she finally confesses, but he brushes this off and makes her go see a therapist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway). Irena wants to get better, but in the end, because her husband gives up on her and has an affair with his co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph), she turns into a large creature, is stabbed by Dr. Judd, who only wanted to exploit her, and dies.

The entire premise of Cat People seems to be a metaphor for depression or bipolar disorder, some type of mental illness. Irena suffers from a disorder due to a past that has traumatized her, and when she finally believes she can trust and open up to someone, they completely shut her down and refuse to understand her or stay with her through her episodes of unstable behavior. Throughout the film, Irena struggles with her ability to turn into a cat, much like those who suffer from mental illness. She has breakdowns and tries desperately to become better for the good of herself and her husband, but her husband gives up on her, triggering the start of another episode she cannot escape.

Irena has spent her whole life trying to suppress her emotions and “dark” feelings because that is what she has learned to do, which is unhealthy; this becomes her downfall in a way. Instead of being nurtured, encouraged, or listened to, Irena is forced to live in a cage her entire life, feeling as though she cannot escape from the prison of her mind. When she dies, she is finally free from the evils that plague her.

In truth, Irena was not the villain of the film at all. Oliver and Dr. Judd played such a large part in her downfall. Her husband, for not choosing to stick with her through the worst of times, and her therapist for trying to exploit her circumstances for his own curiosity, not to actually help her — which reflects many issues surrounding mental health today. Those afflicted with illness such as depression, etc., are not always supported and treated properly or given the help they need. When Lewton produced Cat People he chose a very taboo subject at the time and disguised it with a “horror” aspect. But Cat People seems to be a reflection of and metaphor for how mental illness works and affects people negatively.

Furthermore, in The Curse of the Cat People, the sequel to Cat People, we see Irena’s husband Oliver is now married to his co-worker Alice, and has a daughter with her named Amy (Ann Carter). Amy is perceived as a strange, imaginative girl who daydreams about fantastical and magical things. The other children believe her to be weird because of her airy personality and short attention span. She later befriends an old lady, Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean), with a jealous daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), and even creates an imaginary friend who takes the form of Irena, her father’s first wife. Again, instead of choosing to understand his daughter, Oliver firmly tells her she must go play with the other kids or she will be punished. He also condemns her for having an imaginary friend, and she is severly punished for that as well.

Amy’s imaginary version of Irena is everything her parents are not — she listens to Amy, encourages and nurtures her, and therefore perpetuates Amy’s innocent view of the world in which all life is beautiful.

Amy’s childish innocence and ability to spread her warmth saves her from being killed when she hugs Mrs. Farren’s bitter daughter Barbara — Amy can see the good in people and in everything due to her innocence. In the end, Amy’s parents believe in her and finally listen to her instead of forcing her to try to be “normal” like the other children.

This here is another example of Lewton using a supernatural aspect as a disguise for a subject that was not really brought up during this time. Amy is a child who seems to be on the autism spectrum; she appears to have Asperger syndrome due to her behavior. Instead of really assessing this fact in their daughter, Amy’s parents, especially Oliver, are intent on making her a “normal” child, even punishing her for silly issues such as having an imaginary friend. Both parents are fearful their child may be mentally ill, especially when Amy mentions Irena. But in the end they come to accept her and foster her growth rather than cage her up, which is a stark contrast to what they did with Irena. The supernatural aspect Lewton added was to keep up the theme of “horror” films the company was marketing his movies as, but Curse of the Cat People was truly about child-like innocence and how adults try to take it away at an early age, when really they should be enouraging it.

Both Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People deal with serious issues in the world, but each topic is thinly veiled behind a supernatural aspect. Val Lewton’s films, though not filled with scary entities to haunt your dreams, are still equally as terrifying as they reflect how humans work. The psychological aspects of his films are what truly make them memorable and frightening.

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This is Jim again — I’m back. I don’t mind saying that this essay left me gasping with admiration. I don’t think I could have answered the essay prompt as completely and concisely as this student did — and I made it up. And remember: the student wrote this, as it were, “under the gun”, in a two-hour exam period — and after writing an equally long and insightful essay comparing Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).

The mention of Amy possibly having Asperger syndrome is particularly astute — especially since the student is probably too young to know that Asperger’s had barely been identified by 1944 (and then only in the Third Reich) and didn’t become general knowledge until the 1980s. (Of course, behavior like Amy’s was not unheard of back then, but it was usually described in less compassionate terms: “The kid’s weird / nuts / not right in the head…”) In other classes where I screened Curse of the Cat People, I discussed the idea of Amy’s being somewhere on the autism spectrum (itself barely recognized in ’44), but with this class I didn’t. As it happened, I didn’t have to — not for this student, anyhow.

Yuletide 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Holidays!