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

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

After a Brief Intermission..

I haven't forgotten that I promised a Part 2 to my post "Browsing the Cinevent Library". Unfortunately, I've been dealing with some computer issues lately that have put more than a little crimp in my never-lightning-swift pace, including losing my image-editing software of choice -- which, careless as I often am in such things, I can't remember the name of and hence can't find again to reinstall. I'm working to resolve all this as fast as I can (real life does have a way of interfering, doesn't it?), and will get back to the subject at hand as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, here are a few afterthoughts about another of the pictures screened at Cinevent this year: Cry of the Werewolf (1944), a Columbia B-picture that took the screen in Columbus, appropriately enough, at midnight on Saturday, Day 2. This was the first directorial effort of Henry Levin, who would go on to a career not without its pleasant touches here and there: Mr. Scoutmaster, Journey to the Center of the Earth ('59), The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, Where the Boys Are. Unfortunately, Cry of the Werewolf isn't one of them. But it's not a total washout either. In the title role, believe it or not, is 19-year-old Nina Foch as a gypsy princess struggling with an ancestral lycanthropic curse. It's Nina Foch all right, but it wasn't easy to recognize her; in this she's softer, less hard-edged and (no pun intended) cougar-tough than she would appear later in movies like An American in Paris (can you believe she's only 27 in that one?), Executive Suite and Spartacus.

Beyond that rather interesting surprise, though, Werewolf is a pretty flaccid affair.  It's clear that the boys in Columbia's B unit -- producer Wallace MacDonald, writers Griffin Jay and Charles O'Neal, et al. -- took a look at what Val Lewton was doing over at RKO with pictures like Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie and thought, "Hey, we can do that!" Well, no. That sort of atmospheric chiller, it turns out, is not as easy as Lewton and Jacques Tourneur and Mark Robson and Robert Wise made it look. It's not as simple as sending a German shepherd sauntering through a darkened set and telling the audience it's a wolf. Still, at 63 minutes, Cry of the Werewolf wasn't long enough to waste my time; on the contrary, it demonstrated by negative example just how efficient and effective Val Lewton's movies really were. Since "this utterly suspenseless film" (NY Times, 8/12/44) will probably never come out on video, it's thanks to festivals like Cinevent that we're able to make that kind of compare-and-contrast.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Browsing the Cinevent Library, Part 1

The main reason my luggage is so heavy when I leave Columbus after Cinevent every year is the number of books I buy there. Lobby cards, stills, sheet music, even DVDs can weigh next to nothing, but books -- that's a whole other kettle of bound pages. There are books old and new on offer there, and two of the new ones I picked up this year should find a place on any well-stocked cinema bookshelf.

My friend John McElwee's Showmen, Sell It Hot!: Movies as Merchandise in Golden Era Hollywood all but beggars description. John is the proprietor and sole contributor to Greenbriar Picture Shows, the premier classic movie blog -- this in a field simply chockablock with first-rate blogs. If you haven't bookmarked John's blog, you should, before you read another word of this one.

John has a particularly keen interest in the advertising and promotion end of things -- that is, as it was practiced on a theater-by-theater basis back in the days before coordinated multimedia campaigns for movies opening simultaneously on 6,000 screens all over the nation. That's the focus of Showmen, Sell It Hot!, many of its chapters drawn from -- and expanding upon -- posts he's made on the subject over the seven years Greenbriar's been going. It's especially fascinating to see how small-town theater owners used to ballyhoo their coming attractions; urban exhibitors could wait perhaps a week for word of mouth to kick in, but it was a whole different game for houses where the bill changed every two or three days. At that level, promotion was very much a seat-of-the-pants operation.

Not that the book neglects the major urban and studio-driven campaigns. There are also chapters here on the selling of the sensational new pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in 1933's Flying Down to Rio (at the time, it was a toss-up which word in the title was more exotic, "Rio" or "flying"); the incredibly long "legs" of 1939's Jesse James with Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda and Randolph Scott; the Marx Brothers' second movie career at MGM, beginning with A Night at the Opera; the unexpected success of King Kong in its 1956 reissue; MGM's conundrum over what to do with Saratoga ('37) when Jean Harlow died during production; likewise Warner Bros.' scramble to sell James Dean's posthumous pictures; the promotional campaigns for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Bonnie and Clyde; and more.

Written in John's breezy vernacular style reminiscent of both Variety and Time Magazine in the 1930s, Showmen is a mine of amazing information. John makes the surprising -- yet entirely logical -- point that in the 1930s, installing air conditioning could do more for a theater's bottom line than CinemaScope, 3-D or stereophonic sound 20 years later ("A lot of people went to the movies just to cool off, never mind what was playing."). And he ferrets out eyebrow-raising information on individual pictures' budgets and box office take. Did you know that the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup cost Paramount more than MGM spent on Grand Hotel, or RKO on King Kong? That the Brothers' biggest box office hit was A Night in Casablanca (hardly their best)? I didn't, but John's got the figures here (heaven only knows where he finds them).

The publisher, GoodKnight Books, has given Showmen a production to make any author proud, and other authors envious. There are hundreds of illustrations -- many (and probably all) from the Greenbriar site and John's personal collection -- all of them reproduced exactly as they are. If they're black-and-white or sepia, one- two- or full-color, then that's how they appear here -- and thanks to editor and designer Mary Matzen and the super-rich production techniques at GoodKnight, they're sharper and clearer than they ever were when John ran them at the Greenbriar site. Click here to learn how to get your copy of Showmen, Sell It Hot! with a pre-release discount. (On a side note, two other GoodKnight Books your shelf should make room for, if they're not there already: Errol Flynn Slept Here: The Flynns, the Hamblens, Rick Nelson and the Most Notorious House in Hollywood and Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.)

It's always an exaggeration to say somebody knows "everything there is to know" about a subject, but when the somebody is Richard M. Roberts and the subject is Hollywood comedy, it's really not all that exaggerated. For years now Richard has been one of the go-to guys for Cinevent's program notes, especially when it comes to 1920s and '30s comedy: the Laurel and Hardy shorts sprinkled here and there all weekend, the annual tradition of spotlighting three Charley Chase shorts, and so on.  He performs similar service for Slapsticon, the annual festival of silent-to-early-sound comedy that's coming up on its 11th installment at the end of June (at a new venue on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington).

So if Richard does not know everything there is to know on the subject, it's not for want of trying to find out. And he'll probably never give up. Which is good news for us, because his new book -- the first in a proposed trilogy -- makes us the beneficiaries of his efforts (and those of co-researchers Robert Farr and Joe Moore). Here comes the title (brace yourself, it's a long one): Smileage Guaranteed: Past Humor, Present Laughter: Musings on the Comedy Film Industry 1910-1945, Vol. One: Hal Roach.

As Scott Eyman points out in his "Big-Time Celebrity Intro" (Richard's title, no doubt), it's simply insane that Hal Roach managed to live a hundred years without anyone ever writing a comprehensive biography. After all, here was the man who gave us Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang and Harold Lloyd; jump-started the careers of directors like Leo McCarey and George Stevens; and as Scott puts it, "more or less invented situation comedy as we know it". Hal Roach has been gone 20 years now, and that biography still hasn't turned up. Smileage Guaranteed may be as close as we're likely to get. It's not a biography, but it's definitely comprehensive: a player-by-player, picture-by-picture, year-by-year survey and appraisal of the output of the Hal Roach Studios, the "Lot of Fun".

Richard spends relatively little time on Laurel and Hardy, Lloyd or the Our Gang series; they've been amply covered elsewhere. Instead, the profusely illustrated Smileage Guaranteed concentrates on other performers on the Roach lot -- Snub Pollard; Will Rogers; Max Davidson; the Parrott brothers, Paul and Charles (the latter of whom began as Roach's ace director, then moved in front of the camera to gain stardom as Charley Chase); Harry Langdon at the beginning of his long career decline; Mabel Normand at the sad end of hers; and on and on. Not all of Roach's brainstorms were as felicitous as Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang, and Richard covers the misfires as well -- the Taxi Boys, for example, and the bizarre clown Toto (ne Armando Novello).

Fully 188 pages of the book's 502 are devoted to an exhaustive filmography of every title Hal Roach produced (over 1,000 of them), followed by further filmographies for two of Roach's major (albeit secondary) stars, Charles Parrott (aka Chase) and the Jewish comic Max Davidson.

All in all, Smileage Guaranteed could well warrant another subtitle to go with all those it already has: More Than You Ever Imagined There Was to Know About Hal Roach. Written in Richard's wry conversational style, it is, like Roach's studio, a lot of fun. And there are two more volumes to come.

These two tomes were my major acquisitions at Cinevent this year; between the two of them they took up three pounds and 234 cubic inches of my luggage. I'll talk about some of the others next time.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Cinevent 45

I'm home from Columbus, Ohio and more or less decompressed from spending four days at Cinevent, so I think I'm ready to give a quick rundown of the highlights I saw there. The Midwest's venerable Classic Film Convention is always an embarrassment of riches, some of them quite obscure. It's hard not to feel movie after movie passing in a sort of blur. Still, some stand out.

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Day 1 - Friday

Any day that includes a screening of Frank Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen is bound to be dominated by that delirious Orientalist melodrama. The picture was chosen to open the Radio City Music Hall in 1933, but it performed so poorly that Music Hall management yanked it halfway through its contracted two-week run. The fervid theme of interracial sexual attraction packs a punch even today, even with the "Chinese" warlord played by Scandinavian Nils Asther, and it made 'em positively squirm 80 years ago -- those who showed up at all. Barbara Stanwyck played the naive American missionary in the thrall of Asther's General Yen (that picture on the poster doesn't look much like her, does it?), but it's the all-but-forgotten Asther who dominates the picture, in a performance of grace, intelligence and dignity that (like Luise Rainer's O-Lan in The Good Earth four years later) wins over all but the most rigidly PC viewers today.

Other highlights of the day (for me, at least):  

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T ('53), the Dr. Seuss fantasy that, in its way, was just as delirious as General Yen -- and just as big a flop. (As film historian and biographer Scott Eyman said as we discussed the picture over breakfast that morning, "Yeah, [producer] Stanley Kramer lost a lot of money for Columbia.") Still, Dr. T has found its audience over the last 60 years (though too late to do Columbia any good), and I've always had a soft spot for it. I still laugh out loud when, after the "whammy duel" between Peter Lind Hayes and Hans Conried, the two men collapse exhausted into each other's arms: Conried: "Where did you study??" Hayes: "I just picked it up."

The 1932 Fox western The Golden West, with an epic Zane Grey story that strained at the picture's modest 74-minute running time, told the saga of two generations of star-crossed lovers, with George O'Brien playing the male half in both generations (and with an ultimately happy ending). This one featured an unusual supporting character: an Irish-Jewish peddler named Dennis Epstein (played by Bert Hanlon). There was also a buffalo stampede that was a real pip -- thanks to the generous insertion of stock footage from The Iron Horse, The Big Trail and other Fox westerns.

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Day 2 - Saturday

Saturday's headliner looked at first to be the 1926 silent The Sea Beast, even though it's exactly the kind of movie that gives Hollywood a bad name. The Sea Beast was ostensibly an adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which by the 1920s was finally coming into its own as a pinnacle of American literature. But no pinnacle is so high that somebody can't be knocked off of it, and that's what writers Bess Meredyth and Rupert Hughes proceeded to do, supplying Melville with all the things he neglected to write back in 1851. Capt. Ahab's last name for example: they decided it was Ceeley. And what's a man without a woman, right? So they gave their Ahab (John Barrymore) a sweetheart named Esther, who by a remarkable coincidence was played by Barrymore's real-life squeeze (and future ex-wife) Dolores Costello. Then, to add the dramatic conflict that was missing in all that business about the White Whale, they invented Derek Ceeley (George O'Hara), Ahab's brother and rival for Esther's affections. The result was, as Richard M. Roberts succinctly put it in his Cinevent program notes, "a REALLY Stupid movie." Having seen the later (1930) talkie remake Moby Dick (also starring Barrymore, and where the title was the only shred of Melville to be restored), I thought I'd give this one a look for the sake of completeness. Alas, I wasn't man enough. I got only as far as Ahab's first run-in with Moby Dick and the line (in an intertitle, of course) "My leg! My leg! He tore it off!" -- and decided I simply didn't need to see any more. The Sea Beast and its 1930 remake may well represent the rock-bottom worst of Hollywood in general, and of Warner Bros. in particular: They got two chances to have John Barrymore, the greatest actor of his age, play Melville's titanic Capt. Ahab -- and they blew it both times. (To be fair, The Sea Beast was a box-office hit, whereas when Warners and director John Huston tried to do right by Melville 30 years later, that version of Moby Dick flopped. So you have to blame the audience as much as Hollywood or Warner Bros.)

Upstaging The Sea Beast, and just about everything else shown at Cinevent this year, was a real discovery, an absolute bolt out of nowhere, a picture almost nobody had ever heard of. It was The Canadian (1926), directed by none other than William Beaudine. Yes, the notorious "One-Shot" Beaudine, who cranked out some 368 features, shorts and TV episodes over his 53-year career -- including the sexploitation "documentary" Mom and Dad ('45) and, towards the end of his run, the camp titles Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (both '66). But back in the '20s, Beaudine was a director to reckon with, and The Canadian shows why. It's a simple story: Young Englishwoman Nora Marsh (Mona Palma) is left penniless at the death of the aunt she's been living with, and has no choice but to emigrate to Canada, where her brother is a struggling farmer on the frontier of western Ontario. Pampered, stuck-up and generally useless, Nora clashes with her brother's no-nonsense wife, until at length the wife lays down an either-she-goes-or-I-go ultimatum. Nora impulsively marries Frank Taylor, a neighboring farmer (Thomas Meighan), and the rest of the picture tells how this prissy little snob learns to carry her weight in her new household, where she and her stranger/husband slowly grow to love each other.

  Based on Somerset Maugham's play The Land of Promise, The Canadian was actually a remake; it was first filmed in 1917 under Maugham's original title, with Thomas Meighan playing the same role (opposite Billie Burke). By 1926, Meighan was a well-established and popular star, billed above the title (and with the title changed to give him the title role), and he's certainly good in The Canadian

But the picture belongs entirely to Mona Palma as Nora (shown here with Meighan's Frank early in their hasty marriage). She gives one of the most remarkable performances of the entire silent era -- subtle, sensitive and finely tuned; her face is as immobile as Buster Keaton's, and yet (as with Keaton) you always know exactly what she's thinking. Frankly, for much of the first half of the picture, those thoughts aren't pleasant, and Nora Marsh isn't very sympathetic; as she gradually grows up and shoulders the responsibilities of her new hardscrabble life -- as Nora Marsh becomes Nora Taylor -- she wins our sympathy just as she wins over the other characters in the picture. It's simply an amazing performance. Alas, it's virtually all we have of Mona Palma. She made only seven pictures in her four-year career (three under her real name, Mimi Palmieri). The Canadian was her big break and first lead, but she made only one more picture (Cabaret, 1927) before retiring from the screen at age 29. She lived to the ripe old age of 91 but never made another movie.

The Canadian survives almost by accident, according to Richard Roberts's program notes. Paramount's nitrate print was donated in 1969 to the fledgling UCLA Film Archive, who refused it because it was a silent; it went instead to the American Film Institute, who preserved it. The AFI screened it at the L.A. County Museum of Art in February 1970 as part of its "Rediscovering American Cinema" program. The guest of honor was director Beaudine, seeing the picture for the first time ever. At the thunderous standing ovation afterward, Roberts tells us, the old man wiped away a tear. "I'm very surprised. I was quite a good director once." A month later, William Beaudine was dead. (I wonder if anybody thought to drive up to Oxnard, Calif. and invite 72-year-old Mrs. Mimi P. Cooper, the former Mona Palma, to the screening as well. Evidently not.)

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Day 3 - Sunday

By Sunday, things are generally beginning to wind down at Cinevent; this year, certainly, The Canadian cast a shadow that the rest of the film program was hard-pressed to live up to. There were a couple of high-profile silents on view this day. 

First was The Nut (1921), Douglas Fairbanks's last modern-dress comedy before devoting himself entirely to the costume swashbucklers that began with The Mark of Zorro ('20), and for which he's best remembered today. The Nut was...well, if somebody asked me what was the big deal about Doug Fairbanks, this isn't the picture I'd refer them to to find out. The Obnoxious Schmuck would be a better title, I think, as Doug plays an overbearing inventor whose every effort to win the heart of his beloved backfires in spectacular and embarrassing fashion. The program notes called the picture "episodic"; I'd call it "monotonous", with the irrepressible Doug's character decidedly off-putting.

Then there was Stella Maris (1918), one of Mary Pickford's biggest successes. She plays a dual role: as the title character, a cheerfully sheltered and pampered heiress confined to a wheelchair by some mysterious unnamed disability; and as Unity Blake, a pitifully mistreated orphan whose harsh life contrasts sharply with that of the silver-spooned Stella. It's a very well-made picture and Pickford is excellent in it, plus there are some first-rate effects when both her characters appear on screen together. But the story itself, from a 1913 novel by William J. Locke, is a specimen of the kind of sickly Victorian melodrama that was going out of fashion even then, and that only a star of Pickford's caliber could pull off. 

Probably the highlight of the day -- and certainly the most fun -- was Hold That Co-ed, a 1938 musical with John Barrymore as a Huey Long-ish governor running for the U.S. Senate while simultaneously (and corruptly) trying to wangle a national championship for his pet college football team. Barrymore is a full-throated hoot, the songs are pleasant, and the supporting cast (George Murphy, Marjorie Weaver, Joan Davis, Jack Haley, George Barbier) delightful.

Other memorable Sunday titles: Nazi Agent ('42), with Conrad Veidt (Casablanca's Major Strasser) as a naturalized German-American taking the place of his Nazi spy identical twin brother; The Man Who Lost Himself ('41), another lookalikes-switch-identities drama, this time with Brian Aherne replacing his double, the tycoon husband of Kay Francis; and The Disciple ('15), one of William S. Hart's early westerns, more a strong domestic drama than shoot-'em-up, with Hart a frontier parson determined to clean up a sinful town, even as his wife succumbs to local temptations.

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Day 4 - Monday

And so we come to the last day -- or half-day, really. As usual, most of the dealers have packed up and left, as has a large percentage of the attendees. Still, there are pleasures to be had for those (like me) who choose to stay to the bittersweet end. I think my favorite was The House of Fear (1939) -- not to be confused with the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes picture with the same title. This one is a niftly little mystery with police detective William Gargan posing as a theater producer to crack a year-old cold case in which an actor was murdered onstage during his opening night performance. Other titles on Monday were The Social Secretary ('16), a silent romantic comedy with Norma Talmadge at her most charming; and Henry Aldrich, Editor ('42), in which our Andy Hardy/Archie clone hero (Jimmy Lydon) tries to run his school newspaper, only to get in hot water over an arson investigation. These Aldrich comedies have been running for a couple of years now at Cinevent, and they're always pleasant, well-made comedies. This one, according to the program notes, is widely considered the best of the series, and I'm not surprised.

The movies are only part of the fun at Cinevent, of course. There are also the dealers' rooms, where you can find a vast array of items for sale -- film, video, books, stills, posters, lobby cards, magazines, sheet music, souvenir programs and other memorabilia. As always, I stocked up on much of this -- and, as always, I didn't realize how much I'd bought until I had to pack it all up to come home. I get quite a bit of exercise dragging my luggage through airport security and heaving it up into overhead compartments.

Then there are the people themselves, who have become good friends, a cozy community united by their shared love of classic Hollywood. Two such are John McElwee (left) of Greenbriar Picture Shows and Richard M. Roberts. Both are major contributors to Cinevent's program notes, and both were there this year selling their recently published books: John's Showmen, Sell It Hot!: Movies as Merchandise in Golden Era Hollywood; and Richard's Past Humor, Present Laughter: Musings on the Comedy Film Industry 1910-1945, Vol. One: Hal Roach. I'll have more to say about both books next time.

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