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

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Cinedrome Does Its Part

A couple of years back, in my first post on the Debbie Reynolds Collection, I mentioned that my tentative plans to attend the auction, and maybe even bid on something, were torpedoed by a purchase I'd just made on eBay. That purchase was a 16mm kinescope of the live TV drama The Day Lincoln Was Shot.

For the benefit of those who don't remember them (which is most people now), a brief explanation of "kinescope" is probably in order. In the days before the invention of videotape, a kinescope was the only way to preserve a television broadcast. There were certain technical refinements to the process -- synchronizing the cathode ray scanner with the camera shutter, for example -- but essentially it boiled down to photographing the image and recording the sound off a TV monitor. Videotape was in development all through the early 1950s, but was impractical for broadcast purposes until late in 1956, the year of The Day Lincoln Was Shot.

The drama was broadcast on the evening of Saturday, February 11, 1956 (the eve of Lincoln's birthday) as the sixth episode of CBS's Ford Star Jubilee. Top billed were Raymond Massey (who else?) as Lincoln and Lillian Gish as his wife Mary. But the largest role in the teleplay, and its driving performance, was John Wilkes Booth. In this publicity shot (it's not a shot from the program) the actor playing Booth may look familiar. He should: it's a young up-and-comer named Jack Lemmon.

Lemmon had been kicking around movies and live TV for several years, and just seven months earlier, in July 1955, he had premiered in his breakthrough performance as Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts. A little over five weeks after the Lincoln broadcast, Lemmon would win his first Oscar, as best supporting actor in Roberts. In a symmetrical coincidence, Lincoln's director, Delbert Mann, would also win an Oscar that night for directing Marty, 1955's best picture.

I saw that broadcast of The Day Lincoln Was Shot; I was even aware of Jim Bishop's bestselling nonfiction book, on which it was based (though I wouldn't read it for several years yet). The night of the broadcast, I had already seen Mister Roberts, but being only seven years old, I had no inkling that the men who played the happy-go-lucky Pulver and the brooding, obsessive, angry Booth were one and the same. Even if I'd seen both as an adult, I doubt if I'd have made the connection; the two performances couldn't be more different.

Having seen The Day Lincoln Was Shot, and remembering it vividly all these years, I never dreamed that I'd ever see it again, let alone own it, but here it was. Watching it again after 55 years, I must say I was bowled over. The adaptation (by Jean Holloway and Denis and Terry Sanders) is that rarity, both good drama and good history, correct in nearly every detail. The studio reconstruction of Ford's Theatre alone, which then still languished unused and unrestored after 90 years, was a marvel of accuracy. (The 1956 broadcast was in color, but it was kinescoped only in black and white -- a frustrating omission, but probably a blessing in disguise. If they had done it in color, they'd probably have used Eastman Color, the cheapest process, and it might well have faded to nothing by now.) And Jack Lemmon was -- there's no other word for it -- simply brilliant.

The cast of Lincoln certainly lived up to Ford Star Jubilee's name: besides Massey, Gish and the new-minted star Lemmon, the broadcast was narrated by Charles Laughton. Others in the cast included Herbert Anderson (later the harried father in TV's Dennis the Menace), Raymond Bailey (banker Drysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies) as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and William Schallert (later of Dobie Gillis and The Patty Duke Show, among hundreds of other credits) as Secretary of State William Seward's son Frederick. (Schallert, by the way, is happily still with us, turning 91 earlier this month; a belated happy birthday and continued long life to him.)

At Cinevent this year in Columbus, I mentioned my kinescope of Lincoln to my friend Larry Smith, a nitrate specialist in the Film Preservation Section of the Library of Congress. (You can read more about Larry here.) Larry's interest was piqued, particularly at the thought of a TV performance by Lillian Gish; such performances were comparatively rare, and surviving examples of them are even rarer. He asked me to e-mail him a reminder about it when we both got home.

So I did, and Larry did a little research on the subject. He came back with news which, while it didn't entirely surprise me, still gave my heart a not-so-little flutter: it seems that I have what just might be the only surviving copy of the kinescope of that landmark broadcast. At the very least, I can say this: if there's another copy of The Day Lincoln Was Shot out there, the owner has never bothered to bring it to the attention of the Library of Congress. Larry told me that his higher-ups had agreed that, because of the broadcast's clear historical importance, the LOC should borrow my print for digital scanning and preservation.

I placed my 16mm print in the hands of FedEx that very day, and it's now safely ensconced in the LOC's facility in Culpeper, Virginia. The queue at the scanner is long, so it'll no doubt be a while before I get it back, but naturally I don't mind. Upon reflection, I do wish I had held onto it one more day and screened it so I could have a few screen shots to accompany this post -- the dearth of images on the Internet lends credence to my suspicion that this is the only copy. But I don't mind about that either. We all know that the cause of film preservation won't wait, and I'm grateful to have had the chance to make this small contribution to it.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Browsing the Cinevent Library, Part 2

John McElwee's Showmen, Sell It Hot! and Richard Roberts's Smileage Guaranteed were the two brand-new scoops to be had at Cinevent this year (Showmen is still awaiting its official release date), but they weren't the only relatively new books on sale there. Two others I picked up from collector James A. Gresham are shown here: Children of the Night (2007) and They're Here Already!. The subtitles of the two books tell the story: each is a 200-plus-page collection of posters, lobby cards and pressbook covers, all reproduced in full color on high-quality glossy paper, with text and commentary confined to the opening pages of each chapter.

The chapter arrangements differ. In Children of the Night posters are grouped by subject matter; thus Chapter 1, "The Dracula Series" covers from Dracula (1931) to House of Dracula ('45); while "The Frankenstein Series" ranges from the 1931 original to Abbott and Costello Meet... ('48). There are chapters on Boris Karloff's other movies, and Bela Lugosi's, and the pictures they made together; horror movies of the silent era and the 1940s; and so on.  The book essentially cuts off in the late '40s, when space- and/or atomic-age science fiction took over the task of exploiting audiences' sublimated fears.

And that's where They're Here Already! picks up. This one takes things not subject by subject but year by year, from '50 to '59, with all the posters, half-sheets, inserts and lobby cards (both domestic and foreign) you could ever want to see for everything from Destination Moon (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still ('51), The War of the Worlds ('53) and Forbidden Planet ('56) all the way down to Robot Monster ('53), The Killer Shrews ('59) and Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman ('58). 

The books do have their odd little quirks. The British sci-fi epic Things to Come (1936) is shuffled in with horror films of the '30s, while Hitchcock's Psycho, for Jim Gresham's purposes anyhow, qualifies as 1950s science fiction.  Well, what the hell, I won't quibble; both books are fun to browse through, and if the subtitle A Comprehensive Guide sounds like a bit of an overstatement, it sure ain't by much. Some of the materials reproduced here are from Gresham's private collection, while others were borrowed from other collectors and archives. Personally, I bought both books as potential sources of illustrations to use here at Cinedrome; you may wind up seeing parts of them in posts to come.

So much for the new stuff. Moving backward in the history of publishing about 85 years, I've always been a sucker for movie tie-in books. Even those 1950s and '60s Signet paperbacks with their eight-page photo inserts ("Now! A Major Motion Picture!"). But especially the really old ones from the silent era, when movie tie-ins were a frontier as unexplored as the Wild West. My 1927 novelization of London After Midnight, for example; that one turned out to be a fun read in spite of me. (I'll be running the annual reprint of my four-part synopsis next Halloween Season, but if you're impatient you can find it here, here, here and here.)

I picked up two such Grosset and Dunlap motion picture editions from one dealer at Cinevent this year, both -- against long odds -- with their dust jackets reasonably intact. First, this novelization of the original 1923 The Ten Commandments, "a novel by Henry MacMahon from Jeanie Macpherson's Story Produced by Cecil B. DeMille as the Celebrated Motion Picture..." Curiously enough, the cover reproduces a scene from the modern half of the picture, rather than the first half, which recounts the more spectacular story from the Book of Exodus. (Theodore Roberts as Moses adorns the spine of the book and -- along with Charles de Roche's Pharaoh, a cast of thousands, and a couple of pyramids -- the back cover.) This one has an inscription on the flyleaf: "With a Merry Merry Xmas. To Mamie Masek From Sister Rose. 1928." Judging from the handwriting, I'd guess that the sisters weren't exactly young even then; wherever they are now, I hope their hearts can rest secure in the knowledge that Sister Rose's Xmas gift has found a good home.

Then there was this one: Bardelys the Magnificent by Rafael Sabatini, "the Alexandre Dumas of Modern Fiction". As to that comparison, personally, I've never quite managed to get into The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo, but I sail through Sabatini's books like a knife through soft butter. You may never have read him, but chances are you're more familiar with his work than you think: he was also the author of Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, The Black Swan and Scaramouche, all of which became high-profile movies, some more than once. Probably his most famous -- or notorious -- quote is the opening sentence of his 1921 novel Scaramouche: "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." In 1932, these words somehow found themselves inscribed over one of the doors of the newly completed Sterling Hall of Graduate Studies at Yale. By the time the university's administration learned that the quote came not from some classic poet but from a mere swashbuckling bestseller, it was too late to do anything about it. (Evidently, Sabatini's Scaramouche wasn't the only one born with a gift of laughter.) When Rafael Sabatini died at 74 in 1950, his widow had the grace to have that sentence inscribed on his tombstone.

Bardelys the Magnificent, the third of Sabatini's 31 novels, published in 1905, was filmed by MGM in 1926, directed by King Vidor and starring John Gilbert and Eleanor Boardman, and this edition was published in conjuction with that. Bardelys was considered lost for over 70 years, one of a number of MGM pictures deliberately suppressed by the studio. For once, however, it wasn't MGM's fault. When they bought the rights to Sabatini's book in 1926, the terms of the sale specified that it was only for ten years; after that the studio had to buy the rights again or destroy the negative and all prints. By 1936, a silent picture with a fallen and deceased star was of no commercial value to MGM, and they had nobody under contract to put into a remake, so into the incinerator it went. And there the matter stood until 2006, when a single nitrate print surfaced in a large collection of films purchased by Lobster Films of Paris. It was missing one reel and in poor condition, but was preserved and digitally restored by Lobster, with the missing material -- a little under five minutes -- replaced with production stills. This restoration crops up now and again on Turner Classic Movies and is available in a gorgeous DVD from Flicker Alley; also here from Amazon. Even after all these years, Sabatini is a great read, and you could do a lot worse than to dive into one of his elegant, broad-shouldered adventure-romances. If you do, you'll find that Warner Bros.' 1935 Captain Blood was almost page-for-page faithful to the book, but be prepared for a surprise if you pick up The Sea Hawk; by the time Warners and Errol Flynn filmed it in 1940, nothing but the title remained.

Which brings me to this. Warner Bros.' 1940 Sea Hawk was the second picture of that title. The first was a 1924 silent from First National Pictures, directed by Frank Lloyd with Milton Sills, Enid Bennett, Lloyd Hughes and Wallace Beery. Unlike the Errol Flynn version, this one was quite faithful to the novel, telling the story of a nobleman of Elizabethan England (Sills) betrayed by his treacherous half-brother and sold into slavery in a Spanish galleon. He escapes, converts to Islam and, in time, becomes a dreaded pirate of the Barbary Coast: Sakr-el-Bahr, the Sea Hawk. When Warner Bros. absorbed First National later in the 1920s, it acquired the rights to Sabatini's novel, and 15 years later -- First National evidently having driven a harder bargain than MGM did over Bardelys the Magnificent -- they made it into a vehicle for Errol Flynn, changing everything but the title and the time period. (Captain Blood, by the way, was also filmed as a silent in 1924. This was produced by Vitagraph, another company acquired in 1925 by the burgeoning Warner Bros. enterprise. Thus did the rights to this other Sabatini novel devolve onto Warners, where they sat for ten years before being dusted off and -- after a false start with Robert Donat -- making Errol Flynn a star. The 1924 Blood, unfortunately, survives only in a truncated digest form barely a quarter of its original length. It reposes now at the Library of Congress, waiting hopefully for more pieces to be discovered.)

But back to The Sea Hawk. What you see here is the cover to the souvenir program of the earlier, more faithful picture. I picked this up at Cinevent too -- collecting souvenir programs is a favorite hobby of mine. This one is smaller than the usual program, only 6x9 inches, but it's well designed and informative. The three-color illustration on the cover yields to two colors within, but I have to commend the designers for the number of pictures and the amount of information they managed to include -- including a complete synopsis of the story (no doubt secure in the belief that nobody would read it until after they'd seen the picture).

This version of The Sea Hawk, unlike Captain Blood, survives intact, and it's available here from the Warner Archive. It must take a back seat, of course, to the 1940 version; it doesn't have Erich Wolfgang Korngold's music, or director Michael Curtiz. Most of all, needless to say, it doesn't have Errol Flynn. For all that, it's a lavish and vigorous production, the DVD sparkles, and Milton Sills, while he's no Errol (who was?), is a good swashbuckling hero.

One of my favorite dealers at Cinevent -- and I daresay I'm one of his favorite customers too -- is Larry Newman of Philadelphia, who specializes in souvenir programs, like the one above for The Sea Hawk. I probably buy more individual items from him than I do from anybody else, and it's a rare year when his table doesn't hold at least a few surprises for me. This year it had a whopper: a major Hollywood picture from 1925 that I had absolutely never heard of.  Here it is: The Wanderer, a Biblical spectacle based on the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel According to St. Luke. It was adapted from a 1917 play by Maurice V. Samuel, which was apparently one of those touring productions that popped up in those days hoping to ride the coattails of the stage version of Ben-Hur (the Les Miserables of the 1900s and 'teens). Judging from the programs (Larry also had a copy of the stage program, and I picked up that one too), both play and picture expanded greatly on the New Testament. Where St. Luke merely tells that the young man "wasted his substance with riotous living", the movie gives us (if you'll pardon the expression) chapter and verse. The picture also includes something Jesus neglected to mention when telling the story to his disciples: a climactic scene of our antihero barely escaping with his life while a righteous prophet and a rain of lightning bolts from God destroy the sinful city a la Sodom and Gomorrah.

The picture was directed by auteurist icon and colorful character Raoul Walsh, and it starred William Collins Jr. as the prodigal Jether (Collins, 23 at the time, had a busy career between 1916 and 1935; in fact, he's in the silent Sea Hawk too). Others in the cast included Ernest Torrence, Greta Nissen, Wallace Beery, and as the prodigal's forgiving father, none other than Tyrone Power. No, not that Tyrone Power; his father, Tyrone Power Senior, age 56 in 1925. Plus, in a dance-on bit at a bacchanalian orgy, 19-year-old Myrna Loy (not mentioned in the program, of course).

I couldn't believe this picture had escaped my notice all these years. "Does it even survive?" I asked Larry; he didn't know. (Answer: Yes, there's a print in the UCLA Film Archive.) At least I wasn't the only one to overlook it. It wasn't even reviewed by Variety, and they reviewed everything. (I imagine Jesse Lasky had some words with Sime Silverman about that oversight.) It didn't escape the notice of the New York Times, though; Mordaunt Hall reviewed it in the issue of August 20, 1925, the day after it opened at Manhattan's Criterion Theatre. Mr. Hall allowed as how "[p]ictorially is is unquestioningly beautiful, and the players acquit themselves with distinction..." but he went on to say, "The parable in St. Luke [chapt.] xv is told in fewer than 500 words, and after seeing this effusion one wishes that the producers had been less imaginative."

I bought some other programs as well: Lilac Time ('28) with Colleen Moore giving the performance of her career as a French mademoiselle, and an incredibly young Gary Cooper as a dashing aviator stationed on her father's farm during the Great War. Sally ('29), the early musical with Broadway's Marilyn Miller, which was shot in two-strip Technicolor but, except for one rediscovered musical number, survives only in black and white. I even found one for The Birth of a Nation -- which by itself isn't as rare as you might think; there are four for sale on eBay as I type this. This one, however, still has its onionskin outer cover with the floral pattern, which on most such programs seems to have been the first thing to disappear once whoever bought it got home from the theater.

But I'll close with this one. Not because it's a particularly good program or from a particularly good movie -- neither is the case -- but because it represents one of the sorrier episodes in 1950s Hollywood, and one that has a certain significance for me because it bears on my native state of Indiana.

Raintree County was the first and last novel of Ross Lockridge Jr. of Bloomington, Indiana (which happens to be 41 miles northeast of the town where I was born). It was published on January 5, 1948 by Houghton Mifflin and was chosen a featured selection of the Book of the Month Club. Almost exactly two months later, just as the novel was hitting the top of the New York Times bestseller list, the 33-year-old Lockridge committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage of his Bloomington home; it was March 6, 1948 (which happened to be five days before I was born).

Why did he do it? At the time, some speculated that after the long effort to bring his 1,066-page novel to fruition, Lockridge was exhausted and depressed at the thought of how he would ever follow it up. My uncle once expressed the opinion that Lockridge had deliberately set out to write the Great American Novel -- in fact, believed that he had -- and was fatally disappointed when reviews, while positive and even occasionally rapturous, failed to acknowledge it as such. I think my uncle might have hit the nail close to the head. Reading Shade of the Raintree by the novelist's son and biographer Larry Lockridge, one thing seems clear: it was little short of a miracle that this brilliant, troubled, unstable young man lived long enough to complete his huge book.

The setting of Raintree County is a fictitious county in rural Indiana, and (like James Joyce's Ulysses) it takes place on a single day -- July 4, 1892 -- following its main character, 53-year-old John Wickliff Shawnessy, and his family through the events of the day. Throughout, there are flashbacks to the past, as long ago as 1844 and as recently as earlier that same year, presented non-chronologically as they spring to the memories of Shawnessy and the other characters. It's an ambitious, sprawling, yet carefully structured saga that seeks to summarize wholly the American experience: both everyday life and great events, as well as the aspirations, lofty or squalid, of ordinary people, and the legends and inchoate yearnings that underlie their psyches and shared culture. The book won the "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Annual Novel Award" -- actually just a publicity-savvy way of buying movie rights before publication, but it brought Lockridge $150,000. A tidy sum now, a not-so-small fortune in 1948.*

By the end of 1948, Raintree County had drifted off the bestseller lists and been aced out of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction by James Gould Cozzens' Guard of Honor. Financial difficulties and internal power struggles at MGM put any plans to film the novel on a far-back burner.

Until 1956, when the movie that goes with this program went into production. In his biography of his father, Larry Lockridge remembered attending the world premiere in Louisville, Kentucky with his mother, brothers and sister in October 1957 (on their own dime, uninvited by MGM): "Critics agree that the movie we then watched is among the world's worst." This is overly harsh; the worst you can say about Raintree County -- as a movie, considered by itself -- is that it's resolutely mediocre. That's also the best you can say for it.

But that's as a movie, considered by itself. As an adaptation of Ross Lockridge's novel, however, there's nothing bad enough to say about it. It's as thorough a mangling as any novel ever got at the hands of Hollywood, and that's saying something. Writer Millard Kaufman, a man of meager experience with little more than John Sturges's Bad Day at Black Rock and a couple of UPA cartoons under his belt, was completely flummoxed by a book that would have challenged much surer hands. His solution was to jettison the flashback structure, narrow the time frame to 1859-65, and turn it into a would-be Gone With the Wind, with Elizabeth Taylor as a Scarlett O'Hara manquee. Taylor, to her credit, did her best and snagged the first of four consecutive Oscar nominations. But as John Shawnessy, Montgomery Clift (who was probably miscast in the first place) was in a near-fatal auto accident that held up production for two months while his shattered face was reconstructed, and the visible on-screen difference between his pre- and post-accident performances is a grisly thing to see.

Be that as it may, Raintree County the novel was as mutilated on purpose as Montgomery Clift had been by accident. The director, Edward Dmytryk, later admitted -- nay, boasted -- that he himself had never read the book (as if we needed him to tell us that). Like The Sea Beast (Cinevent, Day 2), Raintree County is the kind of movie that gives Hollywood a bad name. My nephew, who read the book at my suggestion, called it "definitely the greatest novel I never heard of" -- and shook his head in dismay at what MGM did with it.

Imagine if David Selznick had served Margaret Mitchell as poorly as producer David Lewis, Millard Kaufman, Edward Dmytryk et al. served the dead-and-buried Ross Lockridge Jr.; would anybody ever have bothered to get Gone With the Wind right? Of course not. Nobody will ever bother with Raintree County either. And that's just too damn bad.


 *POSTSCRIPT: John McElwee at Greenbriar Picture Shows informs me that only five MGM Novel Awards were ever given, and only two were ever filmed: Raintree County and the first winner, Elizabeth Goudge's Green Dolphin Street (awarded 1944, filmed 1947). The other winners: Before the Sun Goes Down by Elizabeth Metzger Howard in 1945; Return to Night by Mary Renault in 1946; and in 1947 a special award in addition to Raintree County's, to About Lyddy Thomas by Maritta M. Wolff. In May '48 MGM discontinued the award as a belt-tightening measure. While it lasted, according to Variety, the award had constituted "the heaviest literary award in history."

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