Thursday, February 23, 2017

Gray Market Cinema: The Wedding March (1928)

During the brief period The Great DISH Austerity Program was in effect here at Rancho Yesteryear, I was kind of bummed missing out on one particular “Summer Under the Stars” presentation on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™.  Their August 4 daylong tribute to Fay Wray was going to yield a pair of rarely screened movie goodies, one of which was 1929’s Thunderbolt—the first talkie directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring his leading man from The Docks of New York, George Bancroft.  (I really wanted to see Thunderbolt…but I know a guy who can sell me a copy.)

The other gem I wanted for the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives was the TCM premiere of The Wedding March (1928)—which I have seen, though it’s been over twenty-five years since I sat down with it.  Back when I was toiling at Ballbuster Blockbuster Video, we had a eenie weenie teeny tiny section with silent films, most of them Paramount releases like Old Ironsides (1926) and Running Wild (1927).  March was in the inventory, too (it was released to VHS in 1987), and I was tres impressed with the film considered to be one of director Erich von Stroheim’s supreme achievements.

The film’s setting is Vienna—“the home of waltzes, laughter, and pure, sweet love,” per a title card—and since the year is 1914, The Wedding March is going to have to get to its plot soon before the war breaks out.  Prince Ottokar von Wildeliebe-Rauffenburg (George Fawcett) and his wife Maria (Maude George) are the type of aristocracy that is long on pomp and short on circumstance, and their son Nicholas (Von Stroheim) is a philandering wastrel and inveterate gambler in need of funds to shore up his miserable financial situation.  His parents advise him to “marry money,” and his ma is eyeing Cecelia Schweisser (ZaSu Pitts), the daughter of wealthy industrialist Fortunat Schweisser (George Nichols).  Granted, Cece is a little on the gimpy side…but when your prospective bride-to-be has a fortune worth twenty million kronen, beggars can’t be choosers.

At a drunken party (and by party, I mean orgy) underway at a brothel, Schweisser proposes to Prince Ottokar a merger between Nicki and Cecelia…and sweetens the deal with the promise of one million kronen.  The problem for Nicki is he’s fallen head over heels for Mitzeri “Mitzi” Schrammell (Fay Wright), a peasant girl who has been betrothed by her mother Katerina (Dale Fuller) to butcher Schani Eberle (Matthew Betz).  Schani, not to put too fine a point on it, is the dictionary definition of the word “lout”…but since the caste system dictates that Nicki and Mitzi will not be sashaying down the aisle to the titular tune anytime soon, the audience is left to ponder a title card that states without love, “marriage is a sacrilege and a mockery.”

The critical and financial success of MGM’s The Merry Widow (1925) enabled actor-director Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim to attract the attention of independent film producer Pat Powers, who agreed to finance the movie ultimately released as The Wedding March.  (Stroheim and MGM “boy wonder” Irving Thalberg did not get along—a carryover from their days at Universal, where Thalberg had the autocratic director fired from 1923’s Merry-Go-Round.)  Sadly, Stroheim’s obsession with detail during the making of March—he had a fondness for constructing opulent sets and shooting extensive footage, which producers thought unnecessary—would balloon the budget from $300,000 (a little over $4 million in today’s dollars) to $1,250,000 (over $17 million today).  The production, which began in June of 1926, was shut down by Powers the following January.

After running the footage for Powers, Stroheim proposed that the movie be released in two parts, to be screened on consecutive nights.  A problem soon set in that was similar to the troubled history of the director’s 1924 Greed; Part 1 of his new film ran a little over four hours…so Powers took control of the film (after Stroheim refused to cut any further) and handed it off to Paramount, who had agreed to distribute the film.  The studio asked Josef von Sternberg to try and make something out of the movie in the editing room, and when all was said and done the first part of Stroheim’s opus was premiered as The Wedding March.  A second film resulting from all of Stroheim’s footage—a sequel entitled The Honeymoon—had been slated for a preview but would ultimately be released only in Europe (and South America a few months later).

The Wedding March was a box office dud, and received good notices from only a handful of critics.  It was not until 1950 that both March and The Honeymoon resurfaced, when Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française allowed Stroheim to reassemble his work from the prints in Langlois’ collection.  A fire at the Cinémathèque in 1959 destroyed the last known copy of Honeymoon (Langlois later observed the movie “died voluntarily”), but the critical reputation of March began to grow after Stroheim’s death, and in 2003 it was selected to be on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

Erich von Stroheim’s reputation as one of silent cinema’s finest directors has always suffered from the sad truth that so many of his projects were released in an unfinished state.  But despite its incompleteness, The Wedding March is an amazing film—reaffirming the director’s recurring themes of decadence among the elites and nostalgia for pre-war Vienna…not to mention his penchant for the bizarre and exceptional use of close-ups (he learned from the master, D.W. Griffith).  I thought I had become a bit jaded by all those years of watching pre-Code films but the brothel sequence in March really made me sit up and say “What the…front yard?”  The scene establishes that despite being the leading man, Stroheim’s Nicki has a few character flaws; he tells the young working ladies (they were real prostitutes—the champagne was real, too) fawning all over him that he only has time for a kiss from each of them before he goes off to his rendezvous with a “nice girl” (Mitzi).  Nicki doesn’t even seem fazed that his dad is at this shindig; I know I was always surprised whenever my father turned up in the local whorehouse…even if he was only playing piano.  (Okay, I am kidding about this.)

The title card about “marriage is a sacrilege and a mockery” without love is continually reinforced throughout The Wedding March.  Nicki’s royal parents are aristocratic in name only; the film opens with the couple being awakened by a maid (it’s Corpus Christi day, and they’re scheduled to attend a parade) and the two of them look like a pair of horses that were rode hard and put up wet.  (The Princess refers to her Prince as an “ugly old fool.”)  Not only are Nicki and Cecelia marrying without love (it’s purely a financial arrangement) but Mitzi reluctantly agrees to be manacled to Schani only to keep him from shooting Nicki as he leaves the church after his and Cecelia’s nuptials.  (It’s a bittersweet ending, and the story concludes in the now-lost The Honeymoon.)

The Wedding March is the film that made leading lady Wray a star (she was 18 at the time), and though I’m more familiar with her classic “scream queen” turns in films like The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and King Kong (1933), Fay is positively luminous in this movie.  As you are aware, I’m also carrying a torch for ZaSu Pitts, who was quite the dramatic actress before establishing herself in talkies as a comedic character actor with her fluttery gestures and trademark “Oh, my…”  In addition, March is a fine showcase for its director-star; “The Man You Loved to Hate” pulls off the impressive feat of convincingly playing a leading man, warts and all.  March is accessible through the Wonderful World of YouTube, but I grabbed my copy from Finders Keepers…and you know what?  It’s the same VHS copy I watched so many years ago—it even has the 2-strip Technicolor sequence of the Corpus Christi celebration.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Buried Treasures: It Ain’t Hay (1943)

When Universal Studios Home Entertainment began releasing the cinematic oeuvre of Bud Abbott & Lou Costello to DVD in 2004—ultimately resulting in four separate volumes, many consisting of two discs featuring eight movies—one of the duo’s Universal romps was conspicuously missing: 1943’s It Ain’t Hay.  Hay was based on a short story by Damon Runyon, “Princess O’Hara,” and had been previously tackled by the studio in a 1935 vehicle featuring Jean Parker, Chester Morris, and Leon Errol.  But Hay’s Runyon pedigree would result in a legal battle between Universal and the author’s estate, and though the movie had previously made the rounds on cable television outlets the copyright entanglements had not been ironed out at the time the team’s classic comedies were getting their first DVD treatment.

That all changed in 2008, when Universal repackaged the previous DVD releases into one honking big set known as Abbott & Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection. The decision I had to make at the time was: could the absence of It Ain’t Hay from the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives justify a re-purchase of movies I already owned?  I eventually vetoed the purchase; I know there were complaints that the previous releases sometimes wouldn’t play properly in newer machines…but since I hadn’t experienced any problems in that arena I didn’t sweat it.  Besides, through my formidable connections with Mom-and-Pop video outlets, I already owned a VHS copy of Hay.  (Okay, I’m making this sound more important than it is: Martin Grams, Jr. sold me the flick.)

When Universal Studios Home Entertainment launched their MOD “Universal Vault” series, my opportunity to obtain It Ain’t Hay on DVD presented itself in 2011…but the prohibitive cost of MOD discs kept it away from Rancho Yesteryear until January of this year; had a sale on “Vault” titles and I grabbed the movie for eleven dollars.  It’s been a good while since I’ve watched the film (I don’t think I even have the VHS copy anymore—it probably vanished during one of our many moves) so it’s the perfect item for the blog’s participation in Overlooked Films on Tuesdays.

Though Runyon’s “O’Hara” is refashioned as a vehicle for Bud (as Grover Mockridge) and Lou (cab driver Wilbur Hoolihan), it keeps the basic concept of a thoroughbred race horse that’s kidnapped and is unwittingly used to pull a hansom cab around New York City.  (In many versions of the story—notably an adaption presented on radio’s The Damon Runyon Theatre on February 20, 1949—the “King O’Hara” of the story has snuffed it, leaving his daughter “Princess” to eke out a living.)  In the A&C version, Wilbur gives the O’Hara’s livelihood (a horse named Finnegan) a bite of his peppermint stick candy…and the nag dies soon after.

Because Princess (Patsy O’Connor) and King (Cecil Kellaway) depend on the now-departed Finnegan to put groceries on the table, our two financially-strapped heroes now must figure out a way to get an equine replacement.  A trio of Runyonesque ne’er-do-wells—played by Eddie Quillan (Harry the Horse), David Hacker (Chauncey the Eye), and Shemp Howard (Umbrella Sam; when asked why he always carries around an umbrella he retorts: “How should I know—I’m a Damon Runyon character!”)—clue Wilbur and Grover in that there’s a horse named “Boimel” stabled at a racetrack whose owner will gladly give away.  The duo unfortunately take the wrong horse—racing champion “Teabiscuit”—and must move heaven and heck to return the horse before they find themselves in further hot water.

There’s something about the literary output of Damon Runyon that lends itself to classic movie comedy: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis appeared in a version of Money from Home in 1953, and Bob Hope went to the well twice with Sorrowful Jones (1949) and The Lemon Drop Kid (1951).  (Lemon was a remake of a version released in 1934 as was Jones [Little Miss Marker] …but Marker also saw another version released in 1980 as well as inspiring a 1965 Tony Curtis romp, Forty Pounds of Trouble.)  Sadly, with only a few exceptions (Lady for a Day [1933] and A Slight Case of Murder [1938] are the ones that immediately come to mind), the author’s unique world of gamblers, boxers, actors, grifters and hustlers aren’t as well-served in movie adaptations as we might like.  (The best is the 1955 musical Guys and Dolls…which Runyon didn’t technically write, but his short stories provided the inspiration for the 1950 Tony Award-winning stage hit.)

As such, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that It Ain’t Hay is more Abbott & Costello vehicle than a faithful representation of Damon Runyon.  Not that Hay is a bad film; it’s aggressively average A&C but a lot of fun if you’re willing to park your brain in neutral.  It allows the duo to squeeze in their famous “Mudder and Fodder” routine, which gets stretched across several scenes in the film.  (I still think—and I’m gambling Hal will back me up on this—that that classic exchange gets a better workout in 1948’s The Noose Hangs High, with Leon Errol taking over from Bud as straight man.)  Bud and Lou also do a version of “Betting Parlor,” which is one of Hay’s highlights, featuring support from Richard Lane, Andrew Tombes, Ralph Peters, and TDOY fave Herb Vigran.

The sequence set inside the cafeteria—run by a character named Grant (Selmer Jackson), a nod to the duo’s longtime collaborator John Grant—is also good for many guffaws; it introduces the antagonist of Hay, Gregory Warner (Eugene Pallette), an “efficiency man” who has the misfortune to cross swords with Wilbur and Grover throughout the film’s eighty-minute running time.  (The scene where Lou’s Wilbur eats one strand of spaghetti at a time—as three bouncers, including Mike Mazurki and Matt Willis, look on—is a riot.)  Naming the bad guy “Warner” was inspired because it produced this large laugh-getting exchange between Wilbur and Grover when they hear a knock on their hotel room door:

GROVER: Go answer the door…It might be Warner…
WILBUR: It won’t do no good…we’re all signed up with Universal!

The bad news of It Ain’t Hay is that you have to sit through a lot of musical numbers shoehorned into the (admittedly) thin plot; if you’re fans of Grace McDonald and Leighton Noble (and really—who isn’t?) you might have a dissenting opinion…but considering Noble’s character is only around to add a little wartime flavor to the picture (he’s an Army pal of Wilbur and Grover’s, in town to scare up talent for a big show) I think they could have surgically removed him from the proceedings and no one would have noticed.  The child actress who plays Peggy “Princess” O’Hara is Patsy O’Connor, Donald O’Connor’s niece (Donald was also on the Universal payroll at the time); she avoids a lot of the cloyingness that rankles me about most kiddie thespians, and she would later appear in such Universal tunefests as You’re a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith (1943) and Moonlight in Vermont (1944).

It Ain’t Hay would be the third and final credited assignment on an Abbott & Costello film by journeyman Erle C. Kenton; Kenton had sat in the director’s chair on two previous Bud & Lou films—Pardon My Sarong (1942) and Who Done It? (1942), considered two of the duo’s best—but by the time of his fourth A&C film, Hit the Ice (1943), Kenton’s frequent clashes with Costello finally reached a breaking point and he was replaced by Charles Lamont.  (To rush In Society [1944] into theaters, Universal assigned two of that comedy’s production numbers to Erle…but again, he received no credit.)  In addition to his cafeteria duties, John Grant is credited with co-writing the screenplay along with future blacklistee Allen Boretz (the co-author of the stage smash Room Service).  Good news, everyone—Abbott & Costello’s “lost” film is no longer lost, and if you’re a fan of their movie comedies Hay is a real gloom chaser.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Mr. District Attorney (1941)

P(rince) Cadwallader Jones (Dennis O’Keefe), newly-minted Harvard Law graduate (summa cum laude!), is given an opportunity (thanks to some political pull from an uncle) for a job in District Attorney Thomas Winton’s (Stanley Ridges) office.  For an Ivy League graduate, Jones doesn’t seem too bright; in handling his first assignment in court, he inadvertently allows a mobster (Ben Welden) to go free by arguing a point of law that forces the judge (George Watts) to declare a mistrial.  This little clusterfudge hits the front page of the paper where ace reporter Terry Parker (Florence Rice) works—the same periodical that hopes to back Winton in a tough reelection race against criminal attorney (emphasis on criminal) Arthur Barret (Minor Watson).

As punishment for being such a doofus, Jones is given a busywork assignment: a closed case (complete with a mountain of paperwork) involving a crooked politico named Paul Hyde (Peter Lorre), who made off with a tidy sum “liberated” from a public fund several years earlier.  Hyde has disappeared and is presumed dead…but when four fifty-dollar bills from that fund turn up at a local racetrack there’s no question that Mr. Hyde is back in circulation; Winton, however, takes the case away from screw-up Jones and hands it off to a more experienced litigator.  Jonesy and Terry team up to investigate the case, which leads them to murder, money, and mayhem before the final fadeout.

Back in November of last year, one of the entries on the blog’s Forgotten Noir Fridays was Mr. District Attorney (1947), a B-picture inspired by the popular radio show of the same name (from 1939 to 1953).  The 1947 version of Attorney was actually the fourth time the movies tried to start a film franchise based on the radio program; this week’s Forgotten Noir entry is the first go-round for Mr. District Attorney, released by Republic in 1941.  The 1941 film was originally going to be just a run-of-the-mill programmer cranked out by the Republic folks, but studio head Herbert J. Yates liked what he watched in the rushes and decided to appropriate a little more fundage to make the picture a “special.” 

In From Radio to the Big Screen, Facebook chum Hal Erickson notes: “To that end, [Yates] hired playwright F. Hugh Herbert (Kiss and Tell, The Moon Is Blue) to contribute additional dialogue, which may explain why the witty badinage between O’Keefe and Rice is the best thing in the picture.”  Mr. District Attorney is a tol’able little feature, but I disagree with Hal about the screwball comedy aspect involving O’Keefe and Rice; I found their relationship forced, and really—if I wanted to watch an attorney and his romantical escapades I’d put on a rerun of Bachelor Father.  I do agree wholeheartedly with Hal when he compares the comedic shenanigans in Attorney to the treatment detective Ellery Queen was receiving at Columbia at that time (with Ralph Bellamy playing the great sleuth for laughs)—neither approach served those gumshoes well.

I will say this in Mr. District Attorney’s favor: as the movie heads toward the end of its 69-minute running time it puts a nice spin on the plot (unfortunately resolved with a comedic car chase involving the principals).  The supporting cast is also first-rate: Grady Sutton is uncredited as a haberdashery salesman who appears at the beginning and end of the movie (he’s in on the lighthearted wrap-up), and I also spotted TDOY faves like Vince “Elmo” Barnett, Billy Benedict, Tommy Cook, Dick Elliott, Fred Kelsey, and Dave Willock (he has no dialogue, but he’s easily recognized as a photographer seated beside Rice in a courtroom scene).  I thought Peter Lorre was a little subdued in his role of villain—otherwise the rest of the veterans turn in solid work.

Republic followed Mr. District Attorney with Mr. District Attorney in the Carter Case (1941), described by Hal as “a notch better than its predecessor,” and a third entry in the franchise, Secrets of the Underground, was released in 1943—with D.A. “Winton” from the first two films shunted off to a bit role (and played by Pierre Watkin).  If you mosey over to The Sprocket Vault, you’ll find the 1941 movie and previous Forgotten Noir discs back in print—Richard M. Roberts will probably have more info on this but it looks as if Kit Parker Films has decided to release these little gems on their Vault label (which would explain their gradual fade-out from the VCI website).  While I didn’t care for the heavy comedy in Mr. District Attorney (Kit Parker calls it on their website a “whimsical filmization”), overall I found the picture to be a pleasant if unremarkable viewing experience.  (The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther had a dissenting opinion, calling it “the worst bad picture of the year.”  That had to have left a mark.)

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Animation fascination

Back in September 2016, I beat the drum for an Indiegogo project instituted by Tommy José Stathes—early animation historian, archivist, preservationist, and societal gadabout—that would bring to DVD/Blu-ray fifteen early animation shorts starring the irrepressible Bobby Bumps, a beloved cartoon tyke who headlined a good many one-reelers for the John Randolph Bray cartoon studio between 1915 and 1925 (Bobby was created by J.R. Bray animator Earl Hurd).  Stathes, who owns one of the largest silent film cartoon collections in the world, has made it his mission to share these goodies through his home video company Cartoons on Film; the organization is dedicated, to quote the website, “to shar[ing] these masterpieces and prevent[ing] them from being forgotten ever again.”

One of Cartoons on Film’s previous DVD/Blu-ray releases, Cartoon Roots, was reviewed by yours truly at my “Where’s That Been?” column at ClassicFlix back in April of 2015…and in the interim, I had purchased its sequel Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios – Animation Pioneers with every intention of writing it up in this space at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  The delay on this requires a bit of an explanation: I have two Blu-ray players here in Castle Yesteryear.  One of them is connected to the desktop computer in my bedroom…but it no longer plays new Blu-rays because the software that came with the computer insists I pay for an update before it will commence with the Blu-ray thing.  (I simply refuse to submit to this kind of extortion.  It’s akin to paying for sex.)

The other player is in the living room…and since the TV out there is often held hostage by my MSLSD-obsessed father, it’s a little difficult scheduling time to watch any Blu-rays.  I try to do it after he’s officially called it quits for the day (and has headed off for sleepy bye) …but by the time, I’m usually too exhausted to watch anything myself.  (Also, too: my mother suffers from insomnia, and she’s been known to wander out into the living room at that time of night after getting the full two hours of shuteye.  I know the last thing she’s going to want to do is watch silent cartoons.)  It wasn’t until I finally decided that I would stop putting it off and just tear off the shrink wrap that I realized—this is a DVD/Blu-ray combo.  I could have watched this on the DVD player in my bedroom.  So mea maxima culpa to you, Tom…but as I have noted so often here on the blog in the past—I can be a real idiot at times.

As befitting its title, the content of Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios focuses on shorts produced at one of the most inventive of the cartoon factories (and the first successful animation company in America).  The Bray Studios’ first effort, The Artist’s Dream (1913; a.k.a. The Dachshund and The Sausages), kicks off the proceedings; this famous short is a delightful little outing in which a little cartoon weiner dog drawn on an artist’s easel ingenuously gobbles up a plate of bangers…much to the animator’s bewilderment.  The Artist’s Dream was featured on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ in October of 2012 on a presentation of early New York animation shorts hosted by cartoon guru Jerry Beck and TCM oracle Robert “Bobby Osbo” Osborne.

The House of Yesteryear was probably in one of its frequent non-TCM periods at the time the previously mentioned special was televised…but I was able to catch the 100th Anniversary of Bray Studios two years later, which is where I saw one of the DVD/Blu-ray’s other ‘toons, A Fitting Gift (1920).  Gift stars Judge Rummy, who was the subject of a popular comic strip by Tad Dorgan (from 1910 to 1922) that was adapted by the Bray Studios in a series of shorts from 1918 to 1922.  Accompanied by his sidekick Silk Hat Harry, His Honor browses various corsets in a shop to find a suitable one for his wife.  Wacky complications ensue.  J.R. Bray brought several personalities from the “funny papers” to the big screen, represented on Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios with characters like Krazy Kat (The Best Mouse Loses [1920]) and Jerry on the Job (The Tale of the Wag [1920]).  Even the popular Bobby Bumps series had its origins in comic strips; creator Earl Hurd drew an embryonic version of Bobby as “Brick Bodkin” for The New York Journal from 1912 to 1914.  (There’s one of Bobby’s cartoons on this set: Bobby Bumps’ Pup Gets the Flea-enza [1919].)

A chief reason why I—and by that rationale, so many others—find silent cartoon shorts so fascinating is that they were truly inventive little creations…and not just geared to juvenile audiences (some of the material is a little on the risqué side).  How Animated Cartoons are Made (1919) is a jewel, starring animator Wallace Carlson as himself in a short that “documents” how he put together a typical “Us Fellers” cartoon (a short-lived Bray series featuring a daydreaming tyke who answered to “Dreamy Dud”).  Granted, the short deviates a great deal from reality (it leads you to believe producing cartoons was a one-man show…which it most assuredly was not) but it’s most entertaining in its skillful blend of live action and animation.  This would be one of the Bray Studios’ hallmarks; directors like Max Fleischer and Walter Lantz used the live action-animation device often, and are represented on this release with The Tantalizing Fly (1919—with Koko the Clown!), The Pied Piper (1924—starring Dinky Doodle and his pup Weakheart), and The Lunch Hound (1927—Pete the Pup).  It will come as no surprise that Fleischer and Lantz would later start their own studios; Terrytoons’ Paul Terry was also a Bray employee (and his legendary Farmer Alfalfa appears in the 1916 outing Farmer Alfalfa Sees New York.)

Rounding out Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios are Col. Heeza Liar’s African Hunt (1914), The Police Dog on the Wire (1917), Chemical Inspiration (1921), and The Point of View (1921)—an interesting public service announcement about the need to see your optometrist regularly.  Fans of Winsor McCay might get a chuckle out of Diplodocus (1915), a cartoon that was clearly inspired by McCay’s famous Gertie the Dinosaur (1914).  (There is a lot of gossip and speculation as to what Bray “liberated” from McCay in terms of animation techniques—I won’t get into it here.)  Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios is also stuffed with a lot of lovely extra goodies (promotional art, trade paper items) and is supplemented with a “program guide” with detailed information on each short as well as informative essays from Stathes, Beck, David Gerstein (who scored several of the shorts), and Facebook compadre Thad Komorowski.  Animation fanatics will want a copy of this so that they can hug it and squeeze it and pet it and call it “George” …but classic movie fans in general should hie themselves to Amazon and grab one for its indispensable historical value.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

B-Western Wednesdays: Vigilantes of Dodge City (1944)/Sheriff of Las Vegas (1944)

Fans of the Sunday morning newspaper “funnies” might remember that Red Ryder rode the comic strip range in those pages from 1938 to 1964.  The strip was illustrated for most of its run by artist Fred Harman, who drew upon inspiration from an earlier strip he did from 1933 to 1938 entitled Bronc Peeler.  Ryder was a “peaceable” cowpoke who lived on the Painted Valley Ranch owned by his aunt—known as “The Duchess” (not my best friend from high school, of course)—in the Bianco Basin of the San Juan Mountain Range out Colorady way, and engaged in two-fisted western heroics assisted by Little Beaver, his young Native American sidekick…who unfortunately spoke in the same pidgin English that plagued the Lone Ranger’s Tonto.  (Little Beaver’s phrase “You betchum, Red Ryder” eventually made its way into the pop culture vernacular—I will sheepishly admit that I use it myself from time to time though I probably shouldn’t.)

Red Ryder was not only a popular newspaper strip, it was also a mainstay in the comic book racks from 1940 to 1957 under various titles (Red Ryder Ranch Magazine, Red Ryder Ranch Comics)—though for a brief period during its lengthy run those books were comprised of reprints from the comic strip.  Red Ryder was a merchandising fool: clothing, sporting goods, books, toys, etc.  The strip’s longest-lasting contribution to pop culture was the “Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle BB gun with a compass in the stock and a thing which tells time”—featured, of course, in the Yuletide movie perennial A Christmas Story (1983).  (A friend of mine was completely unaware of Red’s history, once remarking: “I thought that was just something they created for the film.”)  Red Ryder also appeared on radio, airing on the Blue Network and Mutual (mostly on the West Coast) from 1942 to 1951, and featuring at various times the likes of professional narrator Reed Hadley, Carlton KaDell, and Brooke Temple as “America’s favorite fighting cowboy.”

Red Ryder came to the silver screen in 1940 in a twelve-chapter Republic serial entitled (what else?) The Adventures of Red Ryder, with Don Barry playing the titular hero…and making such an indelible impression that he spent the remainder of his movie career frequently billed as “Don ‘Red’ Barry.”  By the time Republic committed to a B-western series based on the property in 1944 (the first entry being Tucson Raiders), however, the studio cast “Wild” Bill Elliott in the part…and after making a total of 16 Red Ryder features Elliott was replaced by Allan “Rocky” Lane for seven more outings (the studio wanted to move “Wild” Bill into bigger and better things).  Republic’s Red Ryder series ended in 1947…but only because of a clerical error on the option-renewal date; the owner took advantage of this loophole to hold out for more money.  (Republic decided “Nuh-uh” and continued to make thirty-eight non-Red Ryder films with Lane until 1953.)  There was one last gasp at resurrecting the Ryder franchise at Eagle-Lion between 1949-50 with Jim Bannon as Red; these four films were made in Cinecolor and two of the features that survive in this process were released as a “double feature” from VCI in 2004.

VCI is the reason why I’m doing a “B-Western Wednesdays” post today, by the way.  I received an e-mail flier from the company back in the latter part of December, and though I know better not to do this I clicked on the link for their “Clearance Sale” just for a browse.  (I’m an idiot, I know.)  Ostensibly, I had planned to just buy a copy of Chariots of the Gods (1974) for my fadduh (it was on sale for $3.00) because…well, in addition to his obsession with reality TV shows and MSLSD, he also watches a lot of those UFO-themed programs—you know, the ones where the narrator refers to people as “ancient astronaut theorists” because he’s too polite to say “wacko birds.”  Anyhoo, while browsing the stacks I also found copies of two of their Red Ryder volumes (11 and 12) for sale at $6 each and before you could say “Classic movies never go out of style” all three were nestled snugly in the online shopping cart and on their way to the House of Yesteryear.

Volume 11 kicks off with Vigilantes of Dodge City (1944), an excellent example of how the Red Ryder series represents Republic at the apex of their B-western powers.  Red does not reside in his usual Painted Valley environs (I think they only used that locale in the first film in the franchise), but rather in the hamlet that required a U.S. marshal with “a chancy job” that “makes a man watchful…and a little lonely”: Dodge City.  Red is breeding horses for a U.S. Cavalry contract, and while inspecting his stock with Little Beaver (Robert “Bobby” Blake) and cowpoke Denver Thompson (Tom London), hears gunshots not far from where his horses are situated.  The trio rides hard towards the source of the shooting, but arrive too late to stop the robbery of $40,000 from a freight wagon (and the murder of two men, including the driver).

The wagon belongs to The Duchess (Alice Fleming), who operates a freight line in addition to her ranch; she and Red are unaware that the robberies are being staged by Luther Jennings (LeRoy Mason), a local banker (what else?) who very much wants to buy out “Auntie” Duchess but she refuses to sell.  (Jennings hopes that the robberies will result in the freight line’s inability to continue obtaining insurance…and fortunately, he’s enlisted the help of Walter Bishop [Hal Taliaferro], the man who’s collecting the policy premiums.)  With the help of his chief goon Ross Benteen (Bud Geary), Jennings concocts an eevill scheme to rustle Red Ryder’s horses…and then pin the theft of those equines on Red himself!  Our hero is in a sticky situation…but it all comes out in the wash, as he rounds up the bad guys and brings them to justice.

Boyd Magers at Western Clippings gives Vigilantes of Dodge City four stars and calls it “high energy, non-stop action.”  He’s not exaggerating, either; the highlight of the movie is a climactic chase where bad guys Jennings and Bishop have kidnapped Little Beaver and are making a run for it in a wagon while Red and Denver give chase with a stagecoach.  The wagon is carrying a shipment of dynamite, and at one point in the action the vehicle is set ablaze as Red and Jennings fight to the finish.  The stunts in this little programmer are incredible; it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the second unit director on the movie was one of the motion picture industry’s finest stuntmen, Yakima Canutt.  It’s got a great cast of oater veterans: Mason, Taliaferro (he played a good guy in the Red Ryder serial), London, Geary, Kenne Duncan, Stanley “The Old Ranger” Andrews, and The Man with the Perpetual Sneer—Bob Wilke.  (TDOY fave/Republic serial queen Linda Stirling plays the ingénue in this one—she was in quite a few of the Ryder films—but she doesn’t get much to do, sadly.)

Paired with Vigilantes is Sheriff of Las Vegas (1944); Magers isn’t quite as enthusiastic about this one (two stars) but it’s not all that terrible.  In this entry, Red is appointed sheriff of that titular berg (this was before the casinos, of course) and has his hands full trying to solve the murder of prominent jurist Homer T. Blackwell (John “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” Hamilton), who gets croaked shortly after announcing to The Duchess and schoolteacher Ann Carter (Peggy Stewart) that he’s having banker-lawyer Arthur Stanton (Selmer Jackson) write his no-account son Tom (Jay Kirby) out of his will.  Suspicion in Blackwell’s demise falls upon Tom, of course—though it was really Tom’s disreputable buddy (and saloon owner) Dan Sedley (William Haade) what done the dirty deed.

I was entertained by Sheriff even though I’m convinced the movie’s major flaw is that you never really understand the motivation behind Sedley’s killing of Judge Blackwell (it’s sort of explained at the end, and even that clarification is weak).  (Then again, the only reason why Shakespeare had Don John in Much Ado About Nothing is that he needed a bad guy.)  Geary, Duncan, and Wilke are on hand for this one (playing different characters, natch), and the movie also benefits from the presence of old pros like Hamilton and Jackson.  There’s a bit more emphasis on comic relief in Sheriff (much of it at the expense of Little Beaver) …but I wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I didn’t say I smiled at some of the lighter moments from time to time.

The Red Ryder westerns run a little less than an hour (slightly longer than a TV episode from that 50s era) but when they’re en fuego with the action and stunts they’re entertaining as all get out.  Robert Blake, fresh off being an obnoxious kid (sorry, Baretta fans—but it’s true) with the Our Gang comedies at MGM, would play Little Beaver throughout the Bill Elliott and Allan Lane incarnations of the franchise—Don Kay “Little Brown Jug” Reynolds replaced him in the Bannon Eagle-Lion Ryders.  (Alice Fleming portrayed The Duchess in the Elliott films, Martha Wentworth in the Lane entries, and Marin Sais in the Bannon vehicles.)  I highly recommend these unpretentious little oaters for the dedicated B-western fan, and will hopefully return to some more of them on the blog in the future.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

From the DVR: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960)

Mark Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in this country in 1885 (it was introduced in the UK a couple of months earlier), is considered one of the great works in American literature.  Both schools and libraries have either banned or attempted to ban the book practically since its publication (let’s be honest—Finn features a generous use of the n-word, which sets off a lot of people’s trigger warnings), which is a shame since the novel is nothing short of brilliant in its satirical examination of the mores and attitudes of that period (racism, the gullibility of human nature, etc.).

The satire in the book doesn’t always translate well to the many instances The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been adapted for the silver screen.  I’m sure many of us have their personal favorite version; mine is the 1960 adaptation directed by the Oscar-winning Michael Curtiz, a Warner Brothers veteran helming his first feature for MGM.  (Curtiz would direct only two more films before his passing in 1962; his valedictory film, The Comancheros [1961], was mostly directed by star John Wayne…who insisted that Curtiz receive sole credit [Curtiz was gravely ill from the cancer that ultimately took his life].)  It turned up on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ not too long ago, and I decided to DVR it as it had been a good while since I visited the film.

In the 1960 movie, the titular hero (played by Eddie Hodges) decides to cut loose from a suffocating life of “sivilization” in Hannibal, Missouri…but also to escape his drunken father “Pap” (Neville Brand), who has a rather nasty tendency to bat the fruit of his loins around whenever he’s had a snootful.  The Widder Douglas (Josephine Hutchinson) looks after Huck whenever Pap is in his cups, and the elder Finn has agreed to let the Widow take care of his son on a permanent basis…provided she can come up with five large.  To get the $5,000, she’s going to have to sell her slave Jim (Archie Moore) …so, after Huck cleverly fakes his own death, he and Jim “light out” down the Mississippi on their way to N’awlins—with Huck’s ultimate destination being South America.  (Jim just wants to get to Illinois, a free state…particularly since he’s become the chief suspect in Huck’s “murder.”)

As they make their way down the Mighty Miss, the two comrades are embroiled in a series of misadventures…their paths continually crossing with a pair of con men passing themselves off as The King of France (Tony Randall) and The Duke of Bilgewater (Mickey Shaughnessy).  These two hucksters attempt to swindle two sisters (Sherry Jackson, Patty McCormack) into believing they’re lost relatives…and while Huck initially participates in their scheme (as a nephew named “Percy”), he ultimately spills the beans to the sisters (just about the time the real relatives show up).  Later, Huck and Jim find themselves involved with a traveling circus…and eventually Huck must free his friend when Jim is imprisoned after being turned in by the King and the Duke for a $200 reward.

The movie differs a bit from Twain’s novel in a few ways: the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud receives only a passing mention, and the book’s sequence where Huck dons drag and learns of the reaction to his “death” from town newcomer Judith Loftus has been excised completely—instead, Huck’s female masquerade is used toward the end of the movie when he’s attempting to crash Jim out of jail.  The Huck Finn character was introduced in a previous Twain novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and for Finn the author worked into its plot a reappearance from Tom—he’s the nephew of Silas and Sally Phelps, who own the plantation where Jim is being held.  (The Sawyer character does not appear in the 1960 film.)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was MGM’s second adaptation of the Twain novel; in 1939, the studio released a version starring Mickey Rooney as Huck…and for many classic film buffs of my acquaintance, it remains their favorite of all the adaptations.  (I tend to develop a case of hives even thinking about the 1939 film…for reasons you’re no doubt familiar with if you stop by here on a regular basis.)  I like the 1960 Huckleberry Finn because it features a cornucopia of great character actors: Neville Brand, Mickey Shaughnessy, TDOY fave Judy Canova, Andy Devine, TDOY idol Buster Keaton (as a lion tamer!), Finlay Currie, Josephine Hutchinson, John Carradine, Royal Dano, Sterling Holloway…and on and on and on.  (OTR veterans/voice artists Roy Glenn, Henry Corden, and Parley Baer all have bit parts…as does TV stalwart Burt Mustin as a shotgun toting farmer.)  Tony Randall gets top billing (with Patty “Bad Seed” McCormack second) in the credits, but the chief role of Huck is played by Eddie Hodges, a child performer (he played Ron Howard’s role in the 1957 stage version of The Music Man) who had received good notices for his film debut in A Hole in the Head (1959).

Hodges would later do work for Disney (Summer Magic, The Happiest Millionaire) but you might also remember him for his brief career as a recording artist with singles like Girls, Girls, Girls (Made to Love) and I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door (his biggest hit, peaking at #12 in 1961).  (Billy “Crash” Craddock had an even bigger hit with a cover version of Door, cracking the Top Five of the country charts in 1972.)  Eddie’s on Facebook, by the way, in case you wanted to say hi-dy.  He’s very good in Finn, not the slightest bit cloying…and he has a great rapport with co-star Archie Moore, the ex-boxing heavyweight playing Jim.  (Moore also made appearances in The Carpetbaggers [1964] and The Fortune Cookie [1966] …but we remember him best at Rancho Yesteryear for that incredible fight on top of a moving train he engages in with Charles Bronson in 1975’s Breakheart Pass.  Moore was fifty-eight at the time he made Pass, and did that fight without a stunt double.  This also makes him a boss.)

There are four songs in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—owing to the fact that the movie had originally been planned as a musical at MGM in 1952, with Dean Stockwell playing Huck and the team of Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye as The King and The Duke.  (Kelly put the kibosh on that project, but you can’t deny it wouldn’t have made for an interesting outing.)  Huckleberry Finn turns up on TCM from time to time, but if you’re not willing to wait that long it is available on DVD—either for purchase (it’s back in print) or rental at ClassicFlix.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

“The critics are always right. The only way you shut them up is by winning.” – Chuck Noll

Profuse apologies for not having this announcement up sooner: I’ve been distracted by little annoyances all morning, and didn’t get a chance to draw the winner in Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s “Pulp Fiction” giveaway till after lunch.  The response to this one, by the way—tremendous, as Dear Leader himself might say; we came close to Johnny Dollar proportions.  As always, I wish I had enough sets to hand out to all who entered…alas, I cannot.  But I can make certain that copies of Nick Carter, Master Detective: Chasing Crimes and The Shadow: Dead Men Tell make their way to lucky winner and member of the TDOY faithful Richard C. of Kingman, AZ (“Home of the Dry Heat”).

While I’m issuing mea culpas…I should have had a pair of posts up on Thursday and Friday this past week (one for TDOY’s “Silent Spotlight” and the other for Forgotten Noir Fridays) but I had a deadline for an outside project due, not to mention an appointment at the optometrist and various and sundry interruptions.  Tuesday, I’ll be back with Overlooked Films on Tuesdays and normal blogging will resume.  I thank you.