Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"The Best of Us," Part 1

When William Wyler died in 1981, writer-director Philip Dunne delivered a euolgy at a memorial service in a packed auditorium at the Directors Guild of America. "Talent," he said, "doesn't care whom it happens to. Sometimes it happens to rather dreadful people. In Willy's case, it happened to the best of us."

Everybody called him Willy. Naturally enough -- it was his name. He was born Willi Wyler, actually, in Alsace on July 1, 1902. When he began directing two-reel westerns for Universal in 1925, they Anglicized -- and, to their minds, dignified -- his given name to William, and he went along, but he never changed it legally, and to his friends and family he was Willy to the end.

He looks more like a Willy here, on the left holding the megaphone, playing a Hitchcockian cameo as the assisstant director of the film-within-the-film in Daze of the West, his last two-reeler for Universal; he had already begun directing five-reel westerns and would soon graduate to more prestigious (for Universal, anyhow) features. He's 25 in this picture and has already been directing for two years, the youngest on the Universal lot and probably the youngest in Hollywood. (A few years later, he took mild umbrage at seeing Mervyn LeRoy over at Warners touted as Hollywood's youngest -- "He had press agents and I didn't." -- even though LeRoy was two years older and began directing two years later. Much later on, coincidentally, both would work for producer Sam Zimbalist on the two huge Roman epics that bookended the 1950s at MGM: LeRoy on Quo Vadis and Wyler on Ben-Hur.)

In between the one-week shoot on Daze of the West and the eight months on Ben-Hur, Wyler had one helluva run. In the end it may have been Ben-Hur that proved the undoing of his reputation, at least among "serious" film students. Wyler certainly thought so: "Cahiers du Cinema never forgave me for the picture. I was completely written off as a serious director by the avant-garde, which had considered me a favorite for years. I had prostituted myself."

Well, it certainly didn't seem that way at the time. At least among the hoi polloi and mainstream movie reviewers, Ben-Hur looked like Wyler's masterpiece; his Oscar for directing it was only one of the eleven it won, a record that stood for 37 years. In 1959 and '60, Ben-Hur wasn't simply a great movie, it was a touchstone in the march of human culture. It was everywhere; you couldn't catch a cold without blowing your nose on Ben-Hur kleenex, and everybody who even wanted to be anybody simply had to see it.

In time cooler heads prevailed, and it became clear that as great movies and cultural touchstones go, Ben-Hur was neither. But by then the damage was done; the avant-garde (whoever they are) had abandoned Wyler for -- oh, pick a name: Howard Hawks? Vincente Minnelli? John Cassavetes, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller? Andrew Sarris's American Cinema relegated Wyler to four tiers below the Pantheon, in a section headed "Less Than Meets the Eye." David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film dismissed him as "Hollywood's idea of an outstanding director."

True, it's hard to believe that the director of the bloated, lumbering Ben-Hur is the same man, 20-plus years on, who turned out the spare, gritty Hell's Heroes or the trifling, light-hearted confection The Good Fairy with Margaret Sullavan (who became, for a scant sixteen months, his first wife), never mind anything in between. Wyler's career doesn't have to stand on Ben-Hur, nor does it deserve to fall on it. 

I have an idea for a book, and I may yet do it: The Movie Directors' Hall of Fame. The idea is this: create a scoring system for directors, compiling statistics the way they do for professional athletes. Award so many points for winning an Oscar, so many for directing an Oscar-winning best picture, for directing an Oscar-winning or nominated performance, for directing one of the top box-office movies of the year, for winning the DGA or other directing awards, and so on. Total up the points and see how things shake out.

Now clearly, a scoring system where, for example, Kevin Costner beats out Orson Welles isn't going to be definitive. But let's take it as a premise, just for the sake of argument -- something at least a bit more objective than asking an assortment of critics and "film industry professionals" what they think are the greatest movies of all time. The stats pretty much speak for themselves: William Wyler is the Babe Ruth, the Wilt Chamberlain, the Muhammad Ali of movie directors. There isn't even a close second.

Wyler won three Academy Awards for best director. Only one director (Frank Capra) has won as many, and only one other (John Ford) has won more. Perhaps more important, all three of Wyler's movies also won best picture; one of Capra's didn't, and only one of Ford's did.

Wyler was nominated for best director a total of twelve times; his nearest competitor is Billy Wilder, with eight. Wilder's nominations spanned 17 years, from 1944 to 1960, which could indicate a hot streak, while Wyler's ran 30 years, '36 to '65, which you could read as a sustained career. Fred Zinnemann has seven nominations, several have six, and quite a few have five. But a full dozen? Only Wyler, and it's all but inconceivable that any director will ever top his total (or Wilder's, for that matter).

But where Wyler's directorial touch really shows is in the number of actors and actresses who won or were nominated for his films: 14 wins (or 131/2, if you insist; one, Walter Brennan's supporting win for Come and Get It, was for a film where Wyler shared director credit, taking over after producer Sam Goldwyn fired Howard Hawks) and 36 nominations. His closest runner-up here is Elia Kazan, with nine wins and 24 nominations. It's particularly telling to note the unusual number of times that two performers won for the same Wyler picture: Jezebel, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur. Multiple nominations, too: two for Dodsworth, Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, The Letter and others; three for The Little Foxes, and five for Mrs. Miniver.

Surely this record will stand for as long as Oscars continue to be handed out. Today the only director working with anything like the prolificacy of Golden Age Hollywood is Woody Allen -- 41 features in as many years -- and he's only racked up six wins and 16 nominations (including his own). How long would it take Steven Spielberg or James Cameron -- or even Martin Scorsese (five wins, 20 nominations) -- to equal Wyler's tally? In a Hollywood where directors devote two, three, four years to one picture, it can't be done.

In Part 2, I'll look a little closer at some of these pictures, at Wyler's productive partnership with Samuel Goldwyn, and the working style with which Wyler often drove his actors nuts, even as he shepherded so many of them to the podium on Oscar night.

To be continued...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Wyler Catches Fire: Hell's Heroes

In his biography of William Wyler, A Talent for Trouble, author Jan Herman makes the kind of statement film buffs love to see become obsolete: "There are no extant prints of the sound version of Hell's Heroes." Herman then goes on to discuss Wyler's first talkie in terms of its silent version (like many early sound pictures, Hell's Heroes was released silent as well, for theaters that had not yet been wired for sound).

A Talent for Trouble was published fifteen years ago, and I'm sure Herman himself is pleased to know that his pronouncement is no longer operative. Fortunately for us, Hell's Heroes was remade by MGM in 1936 under author Peter B. Kyne's original title Three Godfathers (and again in 1948 as 3 Godfathers, that time directed by John Ford and starring Duke Wayne), so ownership of this Universal picture devolved upon Metro.

In those days, when Metro remade a movie, it was studio practice to buy up and suppress (some say destroy) any earlier versions. If those originals were in fact earmarked for the incinerator, we probably have a fumbling studio bureaucracy to thank for the fact that we can still see Paramount's 1932 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Universal's 1936 Show Boat, the British Gaslight of 1940, even MGM's own silent Ben-Hur, and other movies that the suits at the Tiffany Studio took it into their heads to remount over the years.

We can certainly thank MGM's acquisitiveness for the fact that these titles from other studios ended up in the MGM library and are now owned by Warner Home Video. Now the Warner Archive has issued a number of titles in two-disc double-feature packages, original and remake, and I'll be posting on some of them in days to come.

For now the subject is Hell's Heroes. Peter B. Kyne's short novel The Three Godfathers was published in 1913 in The Saturday Evening Post, and was his first great success in a writing career that would carry him through 1940 as a popular and well-read author. The story has a mythic resonance: three outlaws on the run from their latest crime come across a dying woman in childbirth in the desert. Before the doomed mother dies she extracts a promise from the three desperadoes to take her baby to safety, and the helpless child awakens the latent humanity of the three unregenerate bad men.

By the time Carl Laemmle Jr. decided to make The Three Godfathers the basis of Universal's first outdoor all-talkie, the studio had already gotten more than its money's worth out of it. There was a screen version in 1916 starring Harry Carey, and another in 1919 titled Marked Men, again with Carey and this time directed by John Ford. Both pictures had been good moneymakers for Universal. (There was another Ford western in 1921, Action, which the IMDB claims was based on Kyne's story, while Clive Hirschhorn's The Universal Story gives an entirely different and unrelated plot. Alas, this is one of Ford's many westerns presumed lost, so we may never resolve the discrepancy.)

To direct the new version of the story, Laemmle chose 27-year-old William Wyler. Wyler had begun work on the Universal City lot as an errand boy, and after a rocky start -- at one point studio chief Irving Thalberg dubbed him "Worthless Willy" -- had risen to where he was considered an asset to the studio. Hell's Heroes was to be his first talkie, but he was no stranger to westerns, having cut his directorial teeth on them from 1925 on -- first a series of nearly two dozen two-reel horse operas for Universal's so-called "Mustang" unit, then five-reel features in the "Blue Streak" series.

Wyler began shooting in California's Mojave Desert and Panamint Valley, just south of Death Valley, on August 9, 1929. Jan Herman tells us that the temperature on location rose as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit, but those of us who know the California desert in August suspect that's probably a conservative figure -- 115 to 120 sounds more like it. In any case, one can only shudder at what the poor cameraman in his booth -- like a meat locker, but without refrigeration -- must have gone through. He must have needed five gallons of water a day just to ward off dehydration.

In the movie, the three outlaws -- Charles Bickford, Raymond Hatton and Fred Kohler -- are on the run after robbing the Bank of New Jerusalem on the edge of the desert (and killing the cashier, who we later learn was the father of the baby they rescue -- a nice detail not in Kyne's story, supplied by scenarist Tom Reed). For Wyler's company, New Jerusalem was Bodie, Calif., an erstwhile Gold Rush boomtown near the California-Nevada border.

Bodie was near the tail-end of its boom-and-bust history in the late summer of 1929. Originally founded on a nearby gold strike in 1859, it had grown by 1880 to a reported population of 10,000, home to 65 saloons and other establishments of ill repute. By 1929 the population hovered around 100. Three years after the Hell's Heroes crew left town, so the story goes, a young boy at a church social threw a tantrum when he was given Jell-O instead of ice cream. Sent home as a punishment, he set fire to his bed and burned down over 90 percent of the town. The final blow came in 1942, when War Production Board Order L-208 closed down all nonessential gold mines in the country, including Bodie's; even the U.S. Post Office closed. Today, what's left of Bodie is a California State Park and a National Historic Landmark.

Notwithstanding the efforts of that youthful
Depression-Era pyromaniac, traces of Bodie
as it appears in Hell's Heroes survive to the
present day. Here's Bodie's Methodist Church,
which figures prominently in the movie's
opening and closing scenes, as it appears today.

And here it is again, 
on the left edge of the frame, 
at the top of Bodie's -- er, that is, 
New Jerusalem's -- dusty main street.

Here's a glimpse of town
and the hills beyond
in the closing moments 
of the movie ...

 ... and a similar view taken more 
recently, showing what's left 
of the same street.

Hell's Heroes was a success for Universal and for Wyler personally. He'd become an asset to Universal for his westerns, but outside the studio Universal's westerns -- cranked out in days for small-time houses in neighborhoods and farm towns -- hardly deserved notice. Now people were noticing. Over at Warner Bros., Darryl F. Zanuck ordered all his producers to see "this picture by this new director."

What specifically excited Zanuck was a tracking shot that Wyler inserted as a way to sidestep a conflict with his leading man, Charles Bickford (on the right in this picture; the others are Raymond Hatton, left, and Fred Kohler). Bickford was a recent import from Broadway -- Heroes was his third picture, made and released hot on the heels of the other two -- and he evidently didn't cotton much to being directed by some Hollywood rube who didn't know anything about real acting. Herman tells us he even went out of his way to undermine Wyler with his fellow actors, an unconscionable breach of protocol then, and an actionable offense under union rules now.

Their particular conflict came over a scene late in the movie as Bickford, as the last survivor of the three bandits, trudges through the desert with the baby in his arms. Wyler wanted Bickford, carrying a rifle as well as the child, to first drop the butt-end of the rifle in the dust and drag it for a distance before dropping it altogether. Bickford refused. He insisted on stopping in his tracks, looking at the rifle, then hurling it away from him into the dirt.

I almost wish this shot survived in the Universal vaults; I'd love to see it, because it sounds perfectly ridiculous -- just the kind of grandiloquent gesture you'd expect from a stage-trained ham with a lot to learn about movie acting. A man dying of thirst won't be able to summon the strength to throw a heavy rifle at all -- and besides, shooting the scene in a real desert, he'd have to throw it about a hundred yards before it looked as impressive to the camera as the actor doing it thought it did.

Wyler's solution was ingeniously simple. He filmed the scene the way Bickford wanted to play it. Then, one day when Bickford wasn't on call, he dressed a prop man in Bickford's boots, had him make tracks in the desert sand, and photographed them with a moving camera.

First we see just the bandit's footprints,
occasionally staggering and shuffling ...

... then the tracks and the divot dug by the rifle butt ...


... then the discarded rifle itself ...

... and so on through other items discarded by the bandit under the grueling desert sun. When we next see Bickford's character, he's stumbling along clutching the child, discarding the last of his burden -- the gold from his bank robbery. 

Bickford's reaction to this end run is not recorded. He no doubt didn't see it until the picture was finished. Did he recognize the tracking shot as a directorial tour de force and an improvement on his own idea? Maybe not; Bickford was always headstrong and cantankerous, and I suspect the whole thing rankled: when he next worked with Wyler -- 28 years later, on The Big Country -- they took up squabbling again as if they had never left off.

But it's not as if Wyler ruined Bickford's budding career. In fact, Hell's Heroes is probably where he first gave evidence of the actor he'd become, and it's still one of his best performances. Along with the four other movies he appeared in during 1930, this one marked him as a strong and distinctive actor who bore watching. 

It marked Wyler as someone worth watching, too. Variety's review called it "gripping and real. Unusually well cast and directed." True, the movie's director was misidentified as "Wilbur Wylans" -- but it was the last time anybody would make that mistake.

One who didn't like Hell's Heroes, it must be said, was Peter B. Kyne. Asked to provide a complimentary letter for studio publicity, he indignantly refused. "Frankly," he wrote to Tom Reed, "I think your Mr. Wyler murdered our beautiful story ... I don't care how much money the picture makes, my conscience will not let me cheer for the atrocious murder of one of the few works of art I have ever turned out ... I will not write any letter to Mr. Wyler. The young gentleman must fight his weary way through life without a helping hand from me."

My, aren't we cranky! Maybe Kyne was miffed that the movie altered the character dynamics, embellished the plot and changed the ending of his story. Whatever got him all riled up, there's no getting around it -- the man had rocks in his head. Hell's Heroes is a terrific picture, and in 1930 everybody but him knew it. Of the three versions of the story I've seen, it is easily my favorite, and certainly the simplest and least sentimental.

The acting is simple and unpretentious, and at a swift, lean 68 minutes the movie spends no time wallowing. The presentation is hard-eyed and terse, which makes the three desperados' conversion to decency and self-sacrifice all the more persuasive and moving. As the first of the bandits to die, Raymond Hatton has a line that's straight out of Kyne's story: "Don't let my godson die between two thieves." Hatton's reading of the line, and the staging of his suicide as the other outlaws plod doggedly away, are presented with a simplicity that -- in hands other than Hatton's and Wyler's -- could easily have become lachrymose and bathetic. 

There is a creative use of sound, too, that Jan Herman could not have appreciated in 1995, not having an extant print to review. Notice especially the last scene, as Bickford's character staggers into that church, the in-and-out subjective sound, so eloquently showing us the man's delirious condition. 

Seen today, too, the movie's age works for it. The primitive technology of early sound, the rugged conditions on location, the stark frontier setting and the primal power of the story all work together to make Hell's Heroes feel not like a movie but a relic, in the best sense of the word -- something rare and precious brought back by a time traveler just returned from 1880 or 1900. 

As things turned out, young Mr. Wyler fought his weary way through life rather well, with or without Peter Kyne's help, and Kyne himself lived long enough to see it. By the time Kyne died in 1957, he had seen -- or could have, if he cared to notice -- Wyler direct two of his three best picture Oscar winners, win two of his three Oscars for direction, and receive ten of his twelve Oscar nominations. 

I'll have more to say about Wyler later. This is just a respectful -- I might even say, given the subject matter, reverent -- look back at the movie that really put him on the map. If it really was lost, as Jan Herman said, in 1995, it's not anymore. Hallelujah.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Stamm

My friend John McElwee over at Greenbriar Picture Shows, in his current post on John Ford's Stagecoach, mentions (as he often does, with clear affection) his hometown Liberty Theatre, which ran Stagecoach in April 1939 and is still showing movies today. He doesn't know how I envy him, having a childhood movie haunt still around to revisit and savor. Of all the movie theaters I frequented in the first thirty years of my life, I can count on the fingers of one hand the ones that are currently in operation -- and I'd still have at least a thumb and pinkie left over.

First and rosiest among these memories, my childhood
home-away-from-home, was the Stamm Theatre in
Antioch, Calif., a small town nestled in the hills of Contra
Costa County about 40 miles east of San Francisco.
Antioch is a lot bigger now, and has overrun many of
those hills, but in the 1950s the population hovered
just under 20,000 and the Stamm was the movie house
of choice. The Stamm's Moderne marquee tower,
shown here in a recent photo, still stands, its futuristic
spire looking like the nose of a Flash Gordon rocket ship
pointed at the stars -- albeit with the original colors (which
I remember as red, chartreuse, dark green and gold)
muted to a conservative gray and white. It was once a
landmark in town, especially at night in its mostly
residential neighborhood, and it adorned the Stamm's
daily ads in the Antioch Ledger. The Stamm was
where I'd rather be most of the time. One Sunday in 1959, I 
passed up my first chance at an airplane ride; my father had 
chartered a small private plane to take the family on a 
fly-around of the county, but I preferred to spend 
the afternoon at the Stamm watching Ingrid 
Bergman in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

There was another, older theater in town, the El Campanil, opened in 1928 as a combination vaudeville and moving picture house, shown here in a postcard image from the 1930s. By the 1950s the El Campanil was open only intermittently, alternating movies with live performances by local community theater companies (I saw my father perform there in Curse You, Jack Dalton and You Can't Take It with You) and other performing groups; my dance teacher held her annual student recitals there, and I first performed on the El Campanil stage at age seven, tapdancing to "You're a Grand Old Flag" in a red-and-blue sateen toy-soldier uniform. As for movies, my mother and uncle took me there to see a reissue of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (on a double bill with, of all things, Abbott and Costello in Buck Privates), and I remember attending the occasional Saturday kiddie matinee there.

But most of the time, Saturday afternoons or not, it was the Stamm. It was movies all year round there, and the house itself was -- at least to my young eyes -- homier and more welcoming than the Spanish-themed, cavernous and rather forbidding El Campanil. I wish I could give you some illustrations of the Stamm's warm red-and-green interior, but the Stamm family seems to have neglected to photograph it before the building was gutted to the bare concrete walls in the late 1990s. All I have are some copies-of-copies provided to me by the Theatre Historical Society of America (THSA) in Elmhurst, Ill. (click the link to visit their Web site and learn of their worthy mission) of an article that appeared in the "Better Theatres" section of Motion Picture Herald on February 5, 1949, as the Stamm was first opening for business.

Here, for example, is a picture of the exterior during
the run of Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, very possibly
the feature that inaugurated the theater. (UPDATE:
My uncle attended the Stamm when it was brand new,
to see Station West with Dick Powell and Jane Greer.
He remembers that as the Stamm's first program, and
I suspect he's probably right.) If you don't mind going
afield to see some images I can't reproduce here,
there's a copyrighted picture of the Stamm from 1986
here (scroll down) that shows the original red formica-
covered doors. Combine that with this ad for Gulistan carpets
from the Feb. 5, '49 Box Office Magazine and, if you
imagine the doors and walls red and that Gulistan carpet
in two-tone pale green, you'll get an idea of the feel of
the Stamm's lobby. At the right edge of the ad, you can
see the steps leading down to the "lounge area" and the
unseen men's (left) and women's (right) restrooms.
[UPDATE 11/27/10: The link to the Gulistan carpet ad
is now dead; if I can track the picture down, I'll correct
the link. -- JL]

UPDATE NO. 2, 3/18/14: Joe Vogel of Cinema Treasures has kindly shared a repaired link to that Gulistan carpets ad; the ad can now be seen here as part of an online archival copy of that issue of Box Office. But better than that, now I'm able to reproduce the ad, and here it is. As I said, the carpet is two-tone green, the doors red with brass handles and baseboards and milk-glass window slits. The far wall is also red, the ceiling and sofa ivory-colored, as is the far wall leading off to the auditorium. Compare this picture of the lobby with the copy of the floorplan below and you have a pretty clear idea of the layout. And check out that sofa! In those days, most of my friends and I wished our living rooms were this comfy.

Not that we spent much time in the lobby or the lounge.
The main attraction, naturally, was the auditorium,
divided between a main floor of about 900 seats and a
loge section seating another 208, where for an extra
25 cents over the regular adult admission you could sit
in raked stadium seating in plush rocking-chair comfort.
Since a child admission was only a quarter, my brother
and I naturally preferred to rough it in the regular chairs
down below -- we were only kids and those seats
were plenty big enough for us and closer to the
screen. Besides, we had other things (like
popcorn, candy and sodas) to
spend the extra money on.

Here are two views of the Stamm's auditorium,
first from the stage looking back,
then (below) from the back looking at the screen.
You can just glimpse the Rockwell
Kent-style murals on the walls of fishermen
casting nets, farmers sowing seeds, and women
at flowing Art Moderne wells. They were lit
by ultraviolet sidelights that gave them
(and the teeth and clothes
of people in the audience)
an eerie blue glow.

By the time I came along, the Stamm had 
converted to Cinemascope, so the proscenium
and screen I knew were much wider than in this
picture from 1949. Still, the house looks much as
I remember it. If I squint very hard and jam
my imagination into Warp Eight, I can almost
believe I see the little hole in the center of the stage
through which a microphone would rise whenever
Mr. Stamm wanted to stalk out and tell us we
were making too much noise, and if we didn't
quiet down like nice little ladies and gentlemen,
he'd turn off the movie and make us all go home.

I have one more memento of the Stamm Theatre, shared with me by the artist, Gary Lee Parks of the THSA, and used here by permission. When Mr. Parks's request to photograph the Stamm's alfresco paintings was refused by the Stamm family, he did the next best thing. He bought an admission ticket, then sat in the audience with his sketchbook and pencil and copied one of the paintings in black and white, making color notes, which he turned into a full-color rendering as soon as he got home. (The movie he sat through, by the way, was The Coneheads; such dedication!) This painting can just barely be discerned as a dim smudge on the left side of the view above, the one facing the screen. I can vouch that Mr. Parks's recreation is accurate; this painting remains particularly well-remembered by me -- for obvious reasons (this was, after all, the 1950s). To tell the truth, the recollection of this picture glowing in the unearthly blacklight of that auditorium may have almost as much to do with my vivid memories of the Stamm as the movies I saw there.

The Stamm is gone now -- all but that looming facade -- converted wall-to-wall into an Apostolic church. Paradoxically, the El Campanil survives virtually intact, a multi-use performing arts center (just as it was 50-plus years ago) saved from the wrecking ball by a citizens' preservation drive in 2003. Not enough people cared to preserve the Stamm, evidently; it was doomed, no doubt, by its late-'40s movies-only design. But in its day -- and probably for some time after its day had passed -- it was where you went if you wanted to see a movie anywhere around Antioch.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Treasure Trove of MGM Shorts, Part 2

Discs 2 and 3 of Classic Musical Shorts from the Dream Factory are practically all Technicolor, except for one short, What Price Jazz with Ted Fio Rito and his orchestra, which credits Technicolor but evidently survives only in black and white. The Warner Archive emphasizes the color in these MGM shorts, and it's a little misleading (like those video compilations from The Ed Sullivan Show that give you the impression the only guests Sullivan ever had were the Beatles, Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones). Still, while it's true that Metro came late to the Technicolor party where features were concerned (their first was 1939's Sweethearts; only Columbia and Universal waited longer to jump on the bandwagon), the studio dabbled extensively in Technicolor shorts throughout the '30s.

There were, for one thing, the ubiquitous James A. FitzPatrick Traveltalks ("As our boat pulls away from the shore and the sun sinks slowly in the west, we bid a reluctant farewell...") -- a fertile field for another Warner Archive collection. And the color shorts collected here -- some, like Crazy House and The Devil's Cabaret, composed of remnants of MGM's aborted feature The March of Time (see Richard Barrios's A Song in the Dark for a detailed retelling of that fiasco), while others were little mini-musicals created from scratch.

See, for example, the two-color Tech Over the Counter, in which a hustling young go-getter turns his father's stodgy department store into a sort of daylight nightclub. (The picture here is of young Betty Grable, only 15 but already playing a married woman shopping for a baby. As you can see, it would take the coming of 3-strip Technicolor, and a little more maturity on her part, to do full justice to Betty's looks.)

A few of the shorts stretch the meaning of "musical" in the title of the collection. The Spectacle Maker (1934), for one, is a fairy tale parable about a maker of magic lenses; one makes people see only beauty, which makes him famous and beloved, while another makes them see only the truth, which gets him condemned for witchcraft (don't worry, all comes out well). Music is limited to some maypole dances and a simple ditty sung by little Cora Sue Collins as a princess. 

The Spectacle Maker is noteworthy for two things besides the pretty color: (1) It was the first directorial effort of Australian transplant John Villiers Farrow, who would go on to marry Maureen O'Sullivan, direct such movies as Five Came Back, Wake Island, The Big Clock, Alias Nick Beal and Hondo, and father an actress daughter named Mia; and (2) the title role was played by Christian Rub, who would gain immortality as the voice and physical model for Gepetto in Walt Disney's Pinocchio (his appearance in this short may in fact have gotten him the job).

My favorite shorts in the whole collection are the color series produced by Louis Lewyn, invariably boasting "A Galaxy of Screen Stars" or words to that effect. My uncle (a film buff like me) says, "I always find these shorts interesting, though not necessarily good," and that pretty much nails it. Lewyn's modus operandi was to shoot these little 1930s showcases at the favorite playgrounds of the stars: the Cocoanut Grove nightclub and Lido Plunge spa ("Feminine Conditioning") at L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel, or at Santa Barbara, Catalina Island, Palm Springs, etc. Then, I'm guessing, he would find stars who were between assignments and offer to put them up for a few days during shooting, in return for which they would do a little turn in front of the camera, or even just sit at a table and wave on cue. In this way, Lewyn would get a star-studded short in vivid (even garish) color, and his audience would get what seemed like a privileged glimpse of their screen idols at play.

In the first of these, 1934's Star Night at the Cocoanut Grove, emcee Leo Carillo (for once blessedly free of his "Ohhhh, Ceesco" accent) recites Don Blanding's poem "Hollywood":
"Bunk, junk and genius, amazingly blended...
Shoddy and cheap -- and astonishingly splendid."

I love that line "Bunk, junk and genius;" in fact, I briefly considered making it the name of this blog, before deciding to go with something more descriptive and less obscure.

We have Lewyn's come-and-put-in-an-appearance approach to thank for our only Technicolor look at the legendary Mary Pickford; gone but not forgotten by 1934, she steps to the mike, graciously addresses her public, and flirts with a youthful Bing Crosby before returning to her ringside table to beam at the Cocoanut Grove's floor show.

Pickford wasn't the only silent-era veteran who made an appearance for Lewyn. Chester Conklin, Ben Turpin, Hank Mann, Buster Keaton, William S. Hart and Rex Bell all show up in one locale or another; here's a look at Turpin cavorting with a trio of comediennes at the Lido. Not all of these old-timers were as well-fixed and retired-by-choice as Mary Pickford. I think it speaks well of Lewyn that he was willing to give them a day or two of work and help them stay in the public eye, maybe pick up a few bucks to boot. (And while I'm thinking of it, isn't it a pity that Rex Bell's wife Clara Bow couldn't have appeared with her husband, smiling and waving at the fans; wouldn't it have been a treat to see her blazing red hair in 3-strip Technicolor?)

It wasn't all idle stars and silent vets in a Lewyn short. He showcased the occasional new face as well. Here's one from a Cocoanut Grove fashion parade of Travis Banton's Egyptian-themed gowns; do you recognize her? I didn't before she was pointed out to me, and her name isn't mentioned as she sashays down the steps with the other models. But that's 19-year-old Clara Lou Sheridan, before she permanently changed her first name to Ann.

Or how about this, from La Fiesta de Santa Barbara ('35, directed by Lewyn, produced by Pete Smith). Can you name that blonde cowgirl between Toby Wing and Chester Conklin? Believe it or not, underneath that thick layer of Technicolor makeup is Ida Lupino, still five years from They Drive by Night and a helluva long way from High Sierra and Road House.

Toby and Ida in their colorful western duds offer a hint to another surefire ingredient in Louis Lewyn's short subjects: beautiful women and plenty of them. Whether they were lining up for volleyball on the Lido's trucked-in sands...

...heralding a comic Andy Devine bullfight in Santa Barbara...

...clustering at the feet of comic Fuzzy Knight in Palm Springs...

 ...yo-ho-ho-ing with the Halloween pirates on Catalina Island...


...or parading in faux Chinese feathers in an even faux-er Chinese tea garden....

...Lewyn made sure that they were never far from the camera for long. Lewyn (and his frequent director Roy Rowland) seem to have believed that those gorgeous Technicolor flesh tones looked better and better the more flesh you used to show them off.

And tell the truth -- can you disagree?

Looking at these short peeks into Hollywood recreation, brightly painted for the Technicolor camera and carefully scrubbed into good clean fun for home consumption, I can't help wondering what the stars were thinking as they sat and smiled and nodded and waved at their "host" (Leo Carillo, Reginald Denny, Elissa Landi, Chester Morris, Lee Tracy, whomever), whose joshing introductions were no doubt shot at an entirely different time, maybe even on a different day. And what did movie colony insiders think when they saw the finished product at some real Hollywood party?

Did this shot of Cary Grant and Randolph Scott on Catalina draw knowing glances from their peers and co-workers the way it does from the gleeful gossips of today? There doesn't seem to be any such winking over a similar shot of Gary Cooper and Richard Cromwell at the Cocoanut Grove. And how much less over another shot of Sir Guy Standing sharing a table with a twinkling Toby Wing (what did they find to talk about?).

Surely this shot of Mr. and Mrs. Clark Gable on the lawn at the Lido must have startled at least some viewers in St. Louis or Des Moines -- is that his aunt? Host Reg Denny is quick to point out that the lady is in fact his wife, making her (at least by marriage) the Queen of Hollywood. But in 1935, when this shot was taken, not even Gable could have known how uneasy sat his consort's crown. It is for us, three-quarters-of-a-century on, to savor the poignant knowledge that this nice, motherly-looking lady is about to go toe-to-toe with Carole Lombard -- and lose, big-time. Do we even remember her name? (Maria "Ria" Langham.)

After the gaudy splash of Discs 2 and 3, and Louis Lewyn's relentlessly hearty civic-booster showmanship, Disc 4 in the collection can't help looking a little anticlimactic, even drab. We're back to black and white, even for Lewyn's peppy Billy Rose's Casa Manana Revue and Sunday Night at the Trocadero, and the collection rounds out with a sampling of Musical Merry-Go-Round shorts from 1948 with disc jockey Martin Block, creator of radio's Make Believe Ballroom. As the picture here suggests, the shorts are essentially Block sitting at his microphone playing records and interviewing guests, with interpolated shots of the bands in question to save us from merely watching the turntable spin. (The pic also, I think, hints at the dissatisfaction with L.A. that would send Block scurrying back to New York as soon as his KFWB contract was up.)

From canned vaudeville to illustrated radio in twenty short years -- that's the arc of the theatrical movie short as presented in Classic Musical Shorts from the Dream Factory. The first Oscars for short subjects were awarded in 1931-32, and in retrospect we can see that their golden age wasn't long. By '48, even at lofty MGM, things had devolved to a deejay and his record collection; television and the antitrust breakup of the Hollywood monopoly were just around the bend to deliver the death blow to the short-spangled movie program. Warner Bros.' Joe McDoakes would morph into TV's George Jetson, and Pete Smith would wind up doing charcoal commercials.

The death spiral wasn't quick; it was almost as long as the the golden age itself. Walt Disney would long depend on animated shorts and his groundbreaking True Life Adventure and People and Places documentaries to fill out programs with his animated and live-action features, and Looney Tunes would limp into the 1960s, growing cheaper and more lackluster almost by the day. Over at Columbia, Moe Howard and Larry Fine would soldier doggedly on like George Blanda kicking extra points or Harold Stassen running for president, even as Third Stooges kept dropping dead beside them; but in 1959 even they, like the Disney True Life Adventures, would segue into features for good.

Did audiences sense the end as they sat in theaters, their eyes wandering to the shadow patterns on the curtains behind Martin Block's desk? I suppose not; right now always feels permanent at the time. But some far-seeing souls with long memories might have reflected that these shorts weren't nearly as much fun as they used to be. Could they have imagined that fifty, sixty years down the line the Academy would still be doling out Oscars for short subjects -- albeit to ones that almost nobody ever sees?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Treasure Trove of MGM Shorts, Part 1

The new collection from the Warner Archive, Classic Musical Shorts from the Dream Factory, offers quite a time-machine glimpse into the changing tastes of audiences between 1928 and 1948, at least as reflected in the output of the Metro short subjects unit. All of these shorts -- well, most of them, anyhow -- have been previously issued on laserdisc, either in the Cavalcade of MGM Shorts collections, as part of the Dawn of Sound series, or as supplements to various features. It's that random-supplement business that has always frustrated me; I've long since given up trying to remember which disc included Pirate Party on Catalina Isle with its mildly eyebrow-raising shot of Cary Grant and Randolph Scott sharing an open-air table on the beach at Avalon. And besides, while I've retained all of my laserdisc collection, isn't it remarkable how quickly those things have become clunky and cumbersome? Much better and more convenient to have all these shorts together in one collection like this.

The shorts are presented more or less in chronological order on the four discs. Disc 1 is from the late 1920s and shows a preponderance of vaudeville entertainers, the first resort of early sound. There are the unfortunately named Locust Sisters, a quartet of close-harmony singers with a fifth sister, Mathilda, accompanying them on the piano. The two songs they give us here appear to represent a sizable chunk of their fifteen minutes of fame, another chunk being their featured roles as missionaries in the 1927 Vincent Youmans Broadway musical Hit the Deck. The five-minute short in this collection, from 1928, is the first of their two appearances in a Metro Movietone Revue, and the parlor setting (these early sound shorts were often filmed on whatever standing sets were available) emphasizes the impression they give of being stagestruck amateurs rather than seasoned troupers. The sisters briefly recorded for Columbia Records, where their somewhat, er, matronly appearance was probably less of a handicap than on film.

Showing to rather better advantage is the diminutive Frances White (identified by some inattentive copywriter on the disc label and liner notes as "Fences White," which makes her sound like a Damon Runyon character). A veteran of the Ziegfeld Follies, White was a temperamental and not entirely stable personality, but we can see here why she was, at least for a time, very popular with audiences. (In 1917 at the Bronx's Royal Theatre, an overenthusiastic audience kept her and her partner William Rock on stage for 55 minutes.)

In this 1928 short, White appears in three costumes: as a bustled and corsetted belle of the 1890s; as a lisping schoolgirl spelling "Mississippi" in song ("M-i-s...s-i-s...s-i-p-p-i..."), the number that so enthralled that Bronx audience in 1917;

...and... a sultry vamp with an ostrich-plume fan, singing about her old home down south in Dixie. White was clearly versatile, and the Movietone camera, cooped up in its airtight, soundproof booth, certainly took a shine to her in a way it never did to the Locust Sisters. She might have had a real career in the sort of roles that went to the likes of Joan Blondell and Una Merkel, but it was not to be. As this short went into production, she was headlining at the Palace; two years later, she would end up in jail when she didn't have the funds to pay a $3.50 taxi fare. She retired from show business in the late '30s and died in obscurity in 1969. Now, 41 years later, she is back to entertain us again, only to be billed as "Fences White" by the Warner Archive.

Frances White -- and Marion Harris, another appealing singer whose movie career quickly ended through bad timing and personal problems -- may have just missed the breaks, but there are others in this collection for whom a Hollywood career was probably never in the cards, no matter what. Gus Edwards' Kiddie Revue is a case in point. Originally produced in two-color Technicolor that has now faded to a dull sepia, the charms of its performers have tended to fade with the hues.

Gus Edwards was a personality who is difficult to explain to people today, but in his own time he was nearly as famous and influential as George Lucas or Steven Spielberg are now. A composer of popular songs ("By the Light of the Silvery Moon," "In My Merry Oldsmobile," "School Days"), producer, impresario and entertainer, he also had an eye for young talent, and many of the kids he featured in vaudeville from 1905 to 1925 went on to major showbiz careers. Alas, no such happy fate awaited the mostly anonymous moppets in Kiddie Revue; on the whole, this 1930 short goes far to prove that the cute-kiddie schtick wasn't as easy as Shirley Temple would later make it look.

It's not that these kids have no talent; on the contrary. Take these three young beauties, for example, tapdancing in ballet toe-shoes up and down steps in perfect unison; they have a skill and stamina I've seldom seen anywhere else. And they are pretty and nubile enough that the camera records their routine with as much pleasure and enthusiasm as they perform it.

But where did they think such an act could take them? In vaudeville, it might have lasted them for years, even decades. In a movie, you do it once and within weeks it's been seen by maybe millions of people; at that point you'd better come up with something new -- the mid-twentieth century is strewn with the career wreckage of vaudevillians who never learned that lesson. Besides, seeing an act like this on stage is one thing; in closeup on a big screen, audiences in 1930 must have winced -- "Jeez! That must really hurt!" -- just as we do now. No wonder tip-toe-tapdancers like these don't show up in a lot of movie musicals.

Other acts in the Kiddie Revue are odd to the point of being vaguely alarming. A fashion show finale, "Babies a la Mode," testifies that the beauty pageant excesses we see in Little Miss Sunshine and the short, sad career of JonBenet Ramsey are not a recent development.

But oddest and most delightfully alarming of all is this young girl who performs a complete tap routine while bent over backwards with her hands flat on the stage floor. Such virtuosic agility deserves more than the anonymity of faded Technicolor, but unfortunately her name has not come down to us. Does she by any chance have a child or grandchild out there who is reading this now? Or can it be -- it's barely possible -- that she herself is still among us? I'd be delighted to hear from you.

But we can't let it go with just a single frame enlargement. Here's a YouTube clip that includes her performance. Our girl turns up 2 min. 48 sec. into the clip; before that, you'll see the mop-top little emcee, child actor Douglas Scott, introduce one "Madame Azusa" with a preternaturally clever send-up of stuffy coloratura sopranos ("A little bit of opera goes a long, long way..."). Then it's our girl front and center, and it's simply the damnedest thing you ever saw.

To Be Continued...

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

"A Genial Hack," Part 3: Peter Ibbetson

Every now and then in the 1930s (and more often than you might think) the Hollywood factory would turn out a picture that just didn't fit the mold, one that seems in retrospect out of step with the reigning star system, the house style of its studio, the temper of the times -- or a combination of all three. Lewis Milestone's The General Died at Dawn was like that, and Warner Bros.' Victorian-ornate A Midsummer Night's Dream, and 1934's Death Takes a Holiday. (For that matter, so was King Kong.) "Miracle pictures," I call them; the fact that they're as good as they are -- that they were made at all -- seems almost to violate the laws of Hollywood physics.

In 1935, fresh off the roaring success of his first A-picture, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Henry Hathaway turned out one of these miracle pictures for Paramount. Peter Ibbetson is unlike any other movie Hathaway ever made. It's unlike any other movie its star, Gary Cooper, ever made. Until the 1940s, when the trauma of World War II spawned a sub-genre of movies concerned with immortality and the afterlife (Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven Can Wait, A Guy Named Joe, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, etc.), it was almost unique. It's impossible to dismiss Peter Ibbetson once you've seen it. This post has been delayed because I want to be very careful what I write about it, to get what I want to say exactly right. And also because, revisiting Hathaway's haunting, lyrical movie, I can't restrain myself from wanting to watch it over and over -- sometimes straight through, sometimes hopping from one favorite moment to another.

If Peter Ibbetson seemed strange to audiences in 1935, it probably wasn't because it was so spiritual or ethereal, but because it was so old-fashioned. It must have looked like something D.W. Griffith would have done in his heyday (in fact, looking back now, it seems odd that Griffith never did). The story originated in an 1891 novel by George du Maurier, grandfather of Daphne du Maurier. The strain of gothic romance that runs through Dame Daphne's novels (Rebecca, Jamaica Inn) can be traced to her grandfather, even though he'd been dead over a decade when she was born. Peter Ibbetson, riding the wave of spiritualism and occultism that was cresting in the late Victorian Era, was a modest success, and du Maurier followed it in 1894 with the hugely successful Trilby (in which he contributed the term "Svengali" to the English language).

In the late 1910s playwright John Nathaniel Raphael and actress-director Constance Collier adapted Ibbetson into a play. It was a hit on the London stage, and in 1917 Collier co-starred with the young John Barrymore on Broadway, as du Maurier's star-crossed lovers who meet every night in their dreams. It was this version of du Maurier's rambling and undisciplined tale that provided the framework for Vincent Lawrence and Waldemar Young's script for Hathaway and his stars Gary Cooper and Ann Harding.

Hathaway wasn't originally assigned to direct Peter Ibbetson; the job was supposed to go to Richard Wallace. Wallace (born, like Hathaway, in Sacramento) had just finished The Little Minister with Katharine Hepburn, and Ibbetson seemed like a good fit. But Gary Cooper, antsy over the script's offbeat quality, insisted on Hathaway instead. (Hathaway was one of Cooper's best friends and his favorite director, and eventually directed more of Cooper's movies than anyone.) Shuffled off onto Annapolis Farewell, which had been Hathaway's next slated assignment, Wallace flew off for the film's Maryland location and was badly injured (though not killed) when his plane went down in Macon, Georgia; Annapolis Farewell was eventually directed by Alexander Hall.

Henry Hathaway didn't often work with child actors, but when he did, he got good results (Spanky McFarland in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Dean Stockwell in Down to the Sea in Ships). And so it was with Dickie Moore and Virginia Weidler in Ibbetson. They play Cooper and Harding as kids, "Gogo" and "Mimsey," when their souls become mated for life. The first of the movie's poetic moments comes when the two are about to be separated, as Gogo's gruff uncle is taking him from his Paris home after his mother's death, to be raised in England; a closeup shows Weidler timidly taking Moore by the hand.

When they meet years later, Gogo is now Peter, a promising young architect, and Mimsey is Mary, the Duchess of Towers, whose husband the duke (John Halliday) has hired Peter to redesign the stables on his estate. At first they don't recognize one another, but the realization comes one morning during Peter's stay at the estate, when the two find they have shared the same dream the night before, of being caught in a sudden storm during a carriage ride.

It is in its last third that Peter Ibbetson becomes something rare and unforgettable, when the lovers are parted once again as Peter is sent to prison. The most sensible and satisfying change that Raphael and Collier made in their play was to alter the crime for which Peter goes away. In du Maurier's novel, he cold-bloodedly murders the "uncle" who raised him when he learns that the man is really his biological father, a notorious rake who seduced and abandoned his mother, leaving her to die brokenhearted in Paris.

In the play and movie, the "crime" occurs in a confrontation with the drunken Duke of Towers. The duke brandishes a pistol, and Peter, accidentally and in self-defense, bashes his brains out with a chair. Tormented by the separation and tortured in prison, his back broken by a sadistic guard, Peter surrenders to despair, hoping only for death.

But Mary appears to him and proves that this is no delirium; they are really together in a dream, though separated by distance, stone and iron.
"You needn't be afraid, Peter," she says.
"The strangest things are true, and the truest things are strange."

Peter gains courage to live for the nighttime, when they can be together. In du Maurier's book, they spend years gallivanting through time and space, unfettered by a world that has grown unreal to them. (It gets more than a little tedious, truth be told.) In the movie, this is distilled into a transcendent 16-minute sequence, luminously photographed by Charles Lang (on some of the same locations Hathaway would soon showcase in Lonesome Pine), that takes Peter and Mary to a world of their own, brilliant with sunshine that contrasts sharply with his dank prison cell and her stately, forbidding manor house.  It's the climactic movement of a lush visual symphony.

Peter Ibbetson is an almost ineffably sublime experience. Never mind that Gary Cooper, playing an Englishman, never even tries to hide that Montana accent that persuaded some people all through his career (and still does) that he couldn't act at all. His faith in Hathaway is well-justified, for this is an extraordinarily well-directed movie, and one of his most touching performances. Ann Harding, despite her golden beauty, was a cold fish on screen ("an absolute bitch," according to Hathaway). It's no coincidence that her only Oscar nomination came for playing the snooty older sister in Holiday (1930). She bridled at working with Cooper, feeling he gave her nothing in his acting, but she was wrong. In Ibbetson she glows in the reflected warmth of Cooper's performance; we love her because he does.

The look of the movie is as sublime as Cooper's acting. If Lives of a Bengal Lancer shows what Hathaway learned from Victor Fleming, Ibbetson shows the effect of having worked with Josef von Sternberg. Hathaway and Lang modeled their lighting on Rembrandt ("He taught you not to be afraid of the dark."), and the compositions reinforce the romantic yearnings of the story. See how often the two lovers are separated by iron bars, walls -- even, as children, the rails of the cast-iron fence between their homes. When, in dreams, they walk through the bars to be together, it's a simple trick that any amateur shutterbug could explain to you, but it's so perfectly right that it takes your breath away.

Some seven years later, Hathaway directed Constance Collier, now a grand dowager of the theater, in The Dark Corner. One day, during a break on the set, she suddenly said, "Henry Hathaway. My God, you're not the Henry Hathaway who made that dreadful picture out of my play Peter Ibbetson with that horrible man -- that Gary Cooper. My God, you're not that Hathaway!" He said, "I sure am," and Collier dropped the subject. Hathaway was proud of his movie; he couldn't understand why Collier was so offended. Neither can I.

Nor could a lot of people. Ernst Lubitsch said it was one of the best-directed movies he'd ever seen. To Luis Bunuel, it was "one of the world's ten best films;" to Andre Breton, "a triumph of surrealist thought." Even Pauline Kael, who called it "an essentially sickly gothic," conceded Hathaway "brings off some of the ethereal moments, and the film tends to stay in the memory."

It'll stay in yours, too.

POSTSCRIPT: This concludes the opening salvo in my tribute to Henry Hathaway. I'll post on some of his other movies from time to time, movies you may well have seen without knowing who directed them -- some acknowledged classics, some neglected gems, some perhaps less successful ventures that still have things worth seeing. If Hathaway is fated to remain neglected and ignored for his tremendous body of work, I hope it won't be because I never spoke up to defend him.

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