Monday, September 26, 2016

Book Review: From Radio to the Big Screen

So let’s get the full disclosure portion of this post out of the way.  In Harold “Hal” Erickson’s From Radio to the Big Screen: Hollywood Films Featuring Broadcast Personalities and Programs, I’m listed in the Acknowledgments…and Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is mentioned in the Bibliography section (under “Frequently Referenced Websites”).  I cannot, however, hammer home enough the point that I would have gravitated to this book regardless of my miniscule participation.  (I even paid for the Kindle copy—thanks to some generous Amazon gift card largesse I received from Facebook compadres and fellow bloggers Brandie and Christopher for my natal anniversary earlier this month.)  Hal is also one of the many Facebook denizens with whom I interact with on a frequent basis, since we share a mutual mania for classic movies and other forms of nostalgia.

Beginning with Rudy Vallee’s The Vagabond Lover in 1929 (though it’s more accurate to mention that the first “broadcast personality,” “Radio Girl” Ann Howe, was appearing in silent films beginning in 1926) and concluding with the silver screen take on A Prairie Home Companion (2006), author Erickson treats us to a staggeringly comprehensive look at how the motion picture industry mined a rich vein of film fodder making movies based on the popular radio programs of the day.  The material is presented in a chronological fashion, delving into films from the 1930s (Check and Double Check, Paramount’s “Big Broadcast” franchise), the 1940s (most of Columbia’s B-picture series, like Crime Doctor and The Whistler), and the 1950s (The Fat Man, Pete Kelly’s Blues).  The end of the road is arrived at with sections on the aforementioned Companion and Private Parts (1997); admittedly, I skipped over the chapter on the Howard Stern movie because a) I’d already seen it, and b) still don’t know what all the fuss was about.

What won’t you find in From Radio to the Big Screen?  Well, talents like Eddie Cantor and Bob Hope have been excised; Cantor was actually well-known as a stage personality and film star (Whoopee!, Palmy Days) before his appearance on the Rudy Vallee series and subsequent Chase and Sanborn Program in 1931.  The same applies for Hope, who had already established his Broadway bona fides before his successful show for Pepsodent debuted in the fall of 1938 (Hope had appeared in two-reelers as early as 1934, and his prolific film career was technically not jumpstarted by his radio show, but by his star-making role in The Big Broadcast of 1938).  (If you’re curious to examine the cinematic oeuvre of Hope in more detail, I highly recommend my Facebook amigo Jim Neibaur’s The Bob Hope Films—not available for Kindle, unfortunately.)  With rare exceptions (Hope’s in-joke joshing with Bing Crosby in the “Road” films, Cantor in Thank Your Lucky Stars), both comedians took special care to separate their cinematic vehicles from their radio shows by playing different characters in their films.  You will, however, find entries on Cantor stooges Harry “Parkyakarkus” Einstein and Bert “The Mad Russian” Gordon, and the cinematic oeuvre of Hope regulars like Jerry Colonna, Brenda & Cobina (Elvia Allman & Blanche Stewart), and Vera Vague (Barbara Jo Allen) are also discussed.

The same Cantor-Hope principle is applied to aural medium funsters like Red Skelton and Abbott & Costello (who would have succeeded in the movies, Erickson argues, regardless of radio), plus you won’t find films in such franchises as The Falcon or Boston Blackie because they were already well-established literary properties and/or movies before they branched out to the airwaves.  Hal makes exceptions for series like Henry Aldrich (he had his origins on the Broadway stage, with What a Life!) and Scattergood Baines (whose short stories began publication in 1917) with the reasoning that those movies sprung from the success of their respective radio programs.  Hal isn’t quite as appreciative of the Aldrich films as I am, though he does note that “the films provide a farcical antidote to the sickly wholesomeness of MGM’s concurrently produced Andy Hardy films” (starring, of course, TDOY bête noire Mickey Rooney).  I’d be curious to check out some of the Scattergood Baines entries; if The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ does own the R-K-O library, it’s a shame they don’t feature one or two these whenever they have a “Guy Kibbee Day.”  Serials based on characters like The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet get the nod for this volume…other chapter plays featuring Buck Rogers or Terry and the Pirates (both well-established comic strip properties) do not.

Hal does present sections on Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy (even though Bergen was making shorts for Vitaphone before his radio program), Jack Benny (limiting those movie mentions to when Benny performed in his radio persona, such as Buck Benny Rides Again), and Fred Allen.  This is from the “Acknowledgements” in his book: “After screening my copy of the Fred Allen movie vehicle It’s in the Bag (1945) for an old-time radio fan club, I was surprised that the picture elicited very few laughs, and was blown off as a waste of time once the screening ended.”  (I don’t want to meet any of these people…ever!)  Erickson continues: “However, these same radio aficionados have no problem listening to radio adaptations of popular Hollywood films on such anthologies of the 1930s and 1940s as Lux Radio Theater and Screen Director’s Playhouse.  The only explanation I can come up with for this paradox is that fans of classic radio (or even modern-day radio) prefer to exercise their imaginations and conjure up images of their favorite stars and programs, and feel a bit resentful when these ‘word pictures’ are literalized on film by others, almost as if some enemy force had invaded their minds and imposed an alien set of images.”  I might also add here that while these same people might have little difficulty listening to these radio adaptations buying them is an entirely different matter, if what some folks who sell OTR for a living tell me is true about sluggish sales.

“Erickson is one of those select few writers who can always be counted on to produce a quality book,” writes a reviewer at Classic Images.  “His writing is informative, breezy, and most entertaining.  I never have to worry about the information contained in one of his books; in fact, I learn a great deal from his impeccable research…he also sprinkles his text with interesting tidbits.”  CI is pretty spot-on in their review of Hal’s book—I love what he writes and how he writes, and sorely miss his entertaining capsule reviews at AllMovie (he was a Senior Editor at that site for 15 years—when it was still—and seemed to be one of the few individuals who had actually seen the films he wrote about).  From Radio to the Big Screen isn’t completely error-free: Hal states that the December 30, 1936 broadcast of Town Hall Tonight—the spark that ignited the Jack Benny-Fred Allen “feud”—doesn’t exist but you’ll find the entire broadcast on the Radio Spirits collection Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud (little shout-out to my employers there).  This is just a pin prick of a nitpick; the entries in his book are a delight to read, and he generously calls attention to movies that should be better known and appreciated (he and I share a mutual affection for 1952’s Here Come the Nelsons).

If you’re as ga-ga about old-time radio as your humble narrator, I would beseech you to walk, don’t run, to Amazon and pick up a copy of this pleasurable book.  Kindlemaniacs like myself can take solace that a number of Hal’s previous tomes are also available in e-book form, notably From Beautiful Downtown Burbank (a look at Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In) and Sid and Marty Krofft: A Critical Study of Saturday Morning Children's Television, 1969-1993.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

"Without winners, there wouldn’t even be any civilization.” – Woody Hayes

Gosh all fishhooks!  The number of entries in Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s latest giveaway—a chance to win one of two Radio Spirits sets of Escape: The Hunted and the Haunted—was most encouraging, and I’m pleased to be able to thank everyone who sent me an e-mail to participate.  Sadly, I’m never jazzed at having to announce just two winners because in a perfect and saner world, I’d be able to pass along a set to everyone who sent me e-mails in the first place.  (Perhaps my ship will come in one of these days, and we’ll party like rock stars as a result.)

The winners in the giveaway are TDOY faithful members Patrick F. and Jim H.; I have already e-mailed them to let them know of their good fortune, and that I will get their swag out to them sometime this week.  Keep an eye peeled on the blog because within the next two weeks, I’ll loot the TDOY prize closet for more goodies!  Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Adventures in Blu-ray: Johnny Guitar (1954)

This past Tuesday (September 20), Olive Films rolled out their “Olive Signature” series with a re-release of the 1952 classic High Noon…but what distinguishes this Blu-ray (and DVD) from past incarnations is its amazing new video/audio transfer, not to mention some bodacious bonuses and extras to enhance the home video experience.  In addition to High Noon, the company has afforded the same blue ribbon treatment to another oater that’s held in high esteem here in the House of Yesteryear: Johnny Guitar (1954), which director Bernardo Bertolucci once described as “the first of the baroque westerns.”

Danny Peary’s essay on Guitar in Cult Movies inarguably whetted my appetite to initially see this film, and my first opportunity arrived when it turned up on Cinemax in the 1990s (along with Pursued and Force of Evil), where it was introduced by director/movie buff Martin Scorsese.  (Scorsese’s introduction to Guitar is one of several extras on the Olive Signature Blu-ray.)  It’s a Western unlike any other, loaded with subversive, radical content (it’s even more of an indictment of the political climate in Hollywood than High Noon) and sexual imagery that gives it a most contemporary feel.  Guitar is also an example of what critic Andrew Sarris labeled “Freudian feminism”; it’s unavoidable noticing that the two female characters in the movie are far more “tougher” than their male counterparts.

The plot involves a saloonkeeper named Vienna (Joan Crawford), who is not held in particularly high regard by her fellow townsfolk, a mob headed up by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) and wealthy rancher John McIvers (Ward Bond).  Emma condemns Vienna for consorting with a group of outlaws led by “The Dancin’ Kid” (Scott Brady), a man for whom she secretly has strong feelings herself.  This alleged collusion with the Kid and his gang is really just a smokescreen for the fact that Vienna’s establishment lies in close proximity to a transcontinental railroad being constructed in the area; if Vienna goes through with her plans to build a rail station she will be a very wealthy woman indeed.

Conflict arises when Vienna hires an old flame (Sterling Hayden) who calls himself “Johnny Guitar” to protect her interests; unbeknownst to anyone else, Johnny is actually an ex-gunslinger named Johnny Logan.  During the course of the movie, Vienna finds herself accused of helping the Kid stage a bank robbery (one of the Kid’s minions lies about her participation in a futile attempt to escape a lynch mob) and is forced to take it “on the lam” with Johnny.  Johnny Guitar concludes with the anticipated showdown between Vienna and Emma, and presumably Vienna and her Guitar man will be free to pursue a life of marital fulfillment.

My enthusiasm for Johnny Guitar is such that I selected it as the topic of my sermon during the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Fabulous Films of the 50s blogathon in May of 2014…so if you want a more thorough examination of this fascinating film, I implore you to click here.  It’s a movie that without question demands multiple viewings in order to take in all of its sly subtext (for example, the way the various characters’ wardrobe colors comment on their motivations).  It also helps to know the fascinating production history of the film; sure, Joan Crawford’s Vienna and Mercedes McCambridge’s Emma square off against one another in Guitar…but the two actresses tangled off-screen as well (Joanie was jealous of her younger co-star—a sentiment expressed to any ingénue who appeared in a movie with Joan).  There was no love lost between the male (Hayden) and female (La Joan) stars, either: “There’s is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford,” Hayden purportedly remarked after his experience.  “And I like money.”

Because Johnny Guitar was filmed in what Republic Pictures labeled “Trucolor”—a more economical alternative to Technicolor—the movie was the victim of severe fading over the years until it underwent significant repair in the 1990s.  The new 4k restoration featured on the Olive Signature Blu-ray only highlights the film’s dazzling color scheme, making it sparkly as all get out.  Accompanying the disc is a first-rate essay (“Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western”) contributed by film critic/author Jonathan Rosenbaum (who included Guitar on his list of the 100 best American films in a 1998 Chicago Reader column in response to the American Film Institute’s Top 100), and an audio commentary track from Geoff Andrew (author of The Films of Nicholas Ray).

Of the Blu-ray’s supplementary material, my fascination with movies that either deal directly or indirectly with the Hollywood blacklist made me gravitate toward “Tell Us She Was One of You: The Blacklist History of Johnny Guitar.”  Historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein (The Front) encore on this (they do a similar mini-feature for High Noon).  Film critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney, and B. Ruby Rich are featured on “Johnny Guitar: A Western Like No Other” (an overview of the movie) and “Is Johnny Guitar a Feminist Western?”—which offers some lively give-and-take on “questioning the canon.”  Rounding out the bonuses are reminiscences from Tom Farrell and Chris Sievernich on working with director Ray (“My Friend, the American Friend”—which references the 1977 Wim Wenders movie) and another one I enjoyed (I only wish it had been longer), “Free Republic: The Story of Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures,” from archivist Marc Wanamaker (author of Early Poverty Row Studios).

“Coveted editions of the films you know and love, Olive Signature is our gift to the many fans, aficionados, and cinephiles who hold these films near and dear,” a press release from Olive Films boldly states.  In the case of both Johnny Guitar and High Noon, they are among my favorite films and most worthy of rediscovery time and time again.  (Many thanks to Bradley Powell at Olive Films for providing Thrilling Days of Yesteryear with the Johnny Guitar screener.)

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Shadow Man (1953)

He’s known simply as “Luigi” (Cesar Romero), the owner and operator of a Soho “pin table saloon.”  (“Pin table” is British slang for a pinball table, and Luigi’s joint features not only liquor but arcade games—kind of an early Dave & Buster’s.)  He’s also committing adultery with Barbara Gale (Kay Kendall), a dissatisfied socialite who has the misfortune of being married to a real wanker (John Penrose).  Complicating their affair is Angele Abbé (Simone Silva), an old flame of Luigi’s who apparently did not receive the memo that Luigi doesn’t want to ever, ever, ever see her again.  Angele is leading Luigi’s employee “Limpy” (Victor Maddern) along only because she’s convinced that he’s the ticket to a continuation of her pretend relationship with Luigi.

Angele is found murdered in Luigi’s apartment, and here’s our hero’s dilemma: he’s on record as having earlier beaten up a Merchant Seaman (Michael Kelly) when the swabbie forced his unwanted attentions on Angele, so the police single Luigi out as a “person of interest” in the murder.  Luigi knows he’s not responsible for his ex-girlfriend’s killing…the trouble is, he spotted his new girlfriend leaving his flat shortly before he stumbled across Angele’s body.

I don’t know why they decided to retitle this week’s “Forgotten Noir” Shadow Man (1953) for U.S. audiences; star Cesar Romero certainly hasn’t been hired to trail anyone.  Its original British title, Street of Shadows, makes a lot more sense; fortunately, the print of Man featured on the 2006 VCI release is the original U.K. version…which was seven minutes longer than the print that ultimately unspooled in American theaters.  (All I can say is: I have the utmost sympathy for those British audiences that had to endure that extra seven minutes.)

Beginning with his motion picture debut in The Shadow Laughs (1933), Romero was one of the silver screen’s most dependable second leads, and also demonstrated a nice flair for lighter assignments (one of my favorite Cesar movies is 1941’s Tall, Dark and Handsome).  Cesar Romero’s contract with 20th Century-Fox expired in 1950, and from that moment on he did a good deal of movie freelancing; Robert L. Lippert availed himself of the actor’s services with such productions as Lost Continent (1951), The Jungle (1952), and Scotland Yard Inspector (1952).  From 1947 (the year he had one of his best film roles in Captain from Castile) to 1993, Romero appeared in at least one movie or TV show every year until his passing in 1994 at the age of 86…and he was even working beyond that, with his last credit being 1998’s The Right Way (okay, it was filmed a few years before its 1998 release—are you happy now?).

Before the doctors explained to my parents that there was no cure for my classic film obsession, I knew Cesar Romero for two things.  One, his various guest appearances as The Joker on TV’s Batman (1966-68).  The other was his turn as the villainous A.J. Arno in Walt Disney’s “Dexter Riley” trilogy—The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1970), Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972), and The Strongest Man in the World (1975).  I thought Romero was quite good in Shadow Man…it’s a shame he was saddled with such a deadly dull production.

That’s what kept Shadow Man from being a winner for me; its sluggish pace (director Richard Vernon also adapted Laurence Meynell’s novel The Creaking ChairMan was his only turn in the director’s chair) and the fact that for a mystery film there’s not much of a mystery—the killer is pretty obvious from the start.  Nothing really happens in the movie until about 45 minutes in; most of what transpires before is character creation…and I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing, it’s just that you need to go somewhere after you’ve taken the time to tell us who’s who.  (They take so much time establishing that Luigi is a right guy despite his sleazy occupation I thought for a brief moment Romero was auditioning for Casablanca.)  The tragic part of all this is that Man does a fairly good job in creating a properly seedy atmosphere (very similar to the celebrated Night and the City) but neglects to pack a plot in its suitcase.

Kay Kendall—just off her splendid turn in Genevieve (1953), and a year away from Doctor in the House (1954)—has a nice showcase as Romero’s illicit lover, and there are familiar British faces in Bill Travers (the star of Born Free and Ring of Bright Water), Edward Underdown (Beat the Devil), and Victor Maddern (the TV sitcom Fair Exchange)—Maddern’s character’s name is actually “Danny Thomas,” which was good for a snicker.  In the final analysis, however…I’d have to give Shadow Man a thumbs-down.

To cleanse my palate after the disappointment that was Shadow Man, I decided to watch the second feature on Forgotten Noir Volume 3Shoot to Kill (1947), which I covered on the blog previously in May of 2012 (it was one of several movies on the Mill Creek collection Dark Crimes; I may look on this set for future “forgotten” noirs when the VCI entries run out).  The VCI print of Kill is in a heckuva lot better shape than the Mill Creek version, and it’s still a guilty pleasure of mine (Luana Walters and her many turbans; Vince “Elmo” Barnett; that eclectic Chinese joint with Gene Rodgers playing boogie-woogie piannah). 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Adventures in Blu-ray: High Noon (1952)

This past Tuesday (September 20), Olive Films officially introduced its “Olive Signature” series on Blu-ray and DVD.  “Highlighting cult favorites, time-honored classics, and under-appreciated gems,” the company states in a press release, “each Olive Signature edition boasts a pristine audio and video transfer, newly designed cover art, and an abundance of exciting bonus material.”  (Think of it as a second Criterion for the classic movie fan.)

The inaugural Olive Signature release is High Noon (1952), the Oscar-winning Western (including a second Best Actor trophy for star Gary Cooper and Best Original Song for High Noon [Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’]) that has been a longtime favorite here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (Noon was my contribution to The Chaney Blogathon back in 2013, celebrating the cinematic achievements of Lon, Sr. and Lon, Jr.).  Why, I hear you ask?  (At least…I hope that’s you, and not the little voices returning to cavort inside my head…)  Well, I’ve long had an affinity for those oaters that turn what is an admittedly conservative film genre (rugged individualism, strict adherence to a strong moral code, etc.) on its head with a bit of subversive tongue-in-cheek.  Carl Foreman, who penned Noon’s screenplay, never made any bones about the fact that the movie served as an allegory about Hollywood and the motion picture industry (Foreman would later fall victim to the blacklist) and the result so infuriated director Howard Hawks that he purportedly made Rio Bravo (1959) in response to Fred Zinnemann’s film.  (Bravo’s star, John Wayne, stated in his infamous 1971 interview with Playboy that Noon was “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”)

You know the story by heart: on the day of his wedding to Quaker Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), ex-Hadleyville marshal Will Kane (Cooper) receives word that convict Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) has been paroled and is headed his way…and he’s not bringing a fondue set.  No, Will sent Miller up on a murder charge five years earlier, but apparently Frank has slipped through the cracks of the justice system and is returning to Hadleyville to settle the score.

As his gang (Sheb Wooley, Lee Van Cleef, Robert J. Wilke) wait at the depot for the train to arrive at noon, Will attempts to round up a posse to help him take care of Miller upon his return.  Kane doesn’t have to do this—and he’s told that by several townspeople, including judge Percy Mettrick (Otto Kruger), who’s already high-tailing it out of town, and mayor Jonas Henderson (Thomas Mitchell).  But Will Kane is a man bound by his sense of duty…and besides, what’s the point of running away?  Miller has all the time in the world to track him down in whatever town he and Mrs. Kane decide to settle.  Deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) is of no use—he’s upset that Kane didn’t recommend him for Will’s job—and one by one, the townspeople reveal their true colors: they’re either deathly afraid of Miller (and more than a few are worried that the confrontation will give the town a bad name) or welcoming him back (many Hadleyville businesses enjoyed having Frank and Company around—it was good for the economy).

The underlying plot of High Noon—there’s a psychotic killer headed for town and its inhabitants can’t or won’t do anything to stop him—has been one that has fascinated me since the first time I sat down and watched the movie with my father.  (I’ve logged any number of visits with the movie since.)  No one expresses this inaction in the film better than the character of Martin Howe (Lon Chaney, Jr.), the man who was marshal of Hadleyville before Will, and who recommended him for the job.  Howe wants nothing more to help Will in his time of crisis, but reasons that Will would be so worried about protecting him in the fight (Howe’s lawman career has left him with “busted knuckles” and arthritis) that Will would wind up getting killed.  As for the rest of the town?  “It’s all happenin’ too sudden,” observes Martin.  “People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it.   Maybe because down deep…they don’t care…they just don’t care.”  It’s a powerful political message that is still frighteningly relevant today.

The Olive Signature transfer of High Noon (mastered from a new 4K restoration) looks razor-sharp and positively pristine—it’s the best I’ve seen this film looking in years.  The bonus materials are abundant and most entertaining; I never noticed that cinematographer Floyd Crosby paid homage to a shot of a swinging clock pendulum from Noon in his later work on Roger Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961)—a feature with a considerably larger pendulum—until film editor Mark Goldblatt (The Terminator) pointed it out in “The Ticking Clock.”  “Oscars and Ulcers: The Production History of High Noon” is a nice overall look at the making of the film narrated by Anton Yelchin, and I particularly enjoyed “Imitation of Life: The Blacklist History of High Noon,” which features historian Larry Ceplair and Walter Bernstein, the blacklisted scribe who wrote one of my favorite films on the subject, The Front (1976).

I’ll admit a little bias and confess that my favorite feature on the Noon Signature Blu-ray is “A Stanley Kramer Production,” because my good friend (and Facebook amigo) Michael Schlesinger holds forth on the career of the producer-director.  Because I was watching this with my mother, I said to her: “Mike is going to proclaim It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World the greatest movie of all time at some point during this.”  (He did not disappoint.)  There's also an accompanying original essay, "Uncitizened Kane," contributed by Sight and Sound editor Nick James.

Something else that will not disappoint: a purchase of this Blu-ray for your classic film library.  I know it’s been released several times before, but the transfer in this edition is worth the price of admission; it’s that breathtakingly beautiful.  Tomorrow in this space: I’ll look at the other Olive Signature release from this week—and not coincidentally, another one of my very favorite Westerns.

Many thanks to Bradley Powell at Olive Films for providing Thrilling Days of Yesteryear with the High Noon screener.

Thoroughly MODern Alley: Victory (1919)/The Wicked Darling (1919)

In December of 1914, I joined what eventually numbered nearly 100 contributors on Indiegogo to raise money for a Manufactured-on-Demand (MOD) program at Flicker Alley, a small independent home video company “born out of a passion for cinematic history and a desire to bring filmmakers and films from out of the past to new audiences with renewed recognition.”  What Flicker Alley wanted to do was take some “unique, significant, and out-of-print classics from the Blackhawk Films© collection” out of the mothballs and put them back in circulation; instead of having to pony up the initial high cost for mass production, they would be able to pass along substantial savings by making more movie titles available for purchase through the magic of MOD.

Let me provide you with an example.  Flicker Alley has two titles in their MOD library—The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection, Volume One and Volume Two.  These two discs were originally released in 2002 as a 2-DVD set by Image Entertainment, but it’s been OOP for quite some time now.  If you were fortunate to buy this when it was still in print, take a victory lap (I was—I paid $17.49 for it in 2003…but I should point out that I’m at that age where I don’t run unless I’m chased).  If not…well, they’re asking $32.93 for one on Amazon as I write this, but the other prices range from $100-$150.  Your best bet, assuming you want to save beaucoups of big bucks, is to go with the Flicker Alley re-release.

Flicker Alley has the occasional sale on their MOD titles from time to time—which is how I wound up with a Lon Chaney double feature of Victory (1919) and The Wicked Darling (1919) in November of 2015.  This DVD was also originally released by Image Entertainment (in 2005).  (A new copy is selling on Amazon for $89.95 as I write this.  I paid $17.95, taking advantage of a Flicker Alley 20%-off sale.)  Both features (they’re relatively short, with Victory running 62 minutes and Darling 59) offer a fascinating look at the early career of the actor who would later be immortalized as “The Man of a Thousand Faces.”  Mastered from 35mm elements, the films also feature new music scores composed and performed by Eric Beheim “using authentic orchestrations and period photoplay music heard in theaters of the era.”  (I smiled at one point during Darling when I heard the familiar strains of Saint-Saëns’ Omphale’s Spinning Wheel—the opening theme to radio’s The Shadow.)

Directed by Maurice Tourneur and adapted by Stephen Fox from Joseph Conrad’s 1915 novel, Victory stars Jack Holt as Axel Heyst, a man determined to live a life of solitude on a remote island near the Dutch East Indies.  Heyst’s plans to remove himself from civilization hit a snag when he meets a young woman named Alma (Seena Owen), a violinist at a hotel owned and operated by a real dirtbag named August Schomberg (Wallace Beery).  Since Alma has attracted the not-at-all-innocent romantic inclinations of both the married Schomberg and the orchestra leader, she begs Heyst to let her go with him back to his seclusion…and in a weak moment, he agrees.

His vanity having taken a severe pummeling, Schomberg arranges for a trio of disreputable hotel guests—Jones (Ben Deeley), Ricardo (Lon Chaney), and Pedro (Bull Montana)—to exact his revenge on Heyst by deceiving Ricardo into thinking there’s a fortune in riches socked away on Axel’s isle.  The Unholy Three pilot a private craft to the island, and the lives of both Heyst and Alma are soon placed in jeopardy; earlier, we saw Ricardo threaten Schomberg with a deadly weapon that most assuredly was not a butter knife.  In dealing with the menace that has invaded his domicile, Heyst learns that a life of solitude isn’t worth a hill of beans in this crazy world…and it’s intimated that he and Alma are headed for a life of happy-ever-after.

Chaney’s performance as the sinister Ricardo is the highlight of Victory; Exhibitors Trade Review said at the time: “The vividly vicious work of Lon Chaney, as Ricardo, deserves more than passing mention.  His impersonation of this singularly unlovable character is a wonderful bit of pantomime … In fact, Mr. Chaney may be said in slang phrase to ‘run away with the play’ at certain stages, completely overshadowing his contemporaries.”  One of these contemporaries is Wallace Beery, no slouch himself in the villainy department…and it’s great seeing these two square off against one another (here’s a tip: bet it all on Lon).  Victory was also chosen by The New York Times as one of the year’s ten best films.  It was remade in 1930 as Dangerous Paradise (directed by William Wellman and starring Nancy Carroll and Richard Arlen), and in 1940 (with Fredric March, Betty Field, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke in a version that placed an emphasis on intervention into WW2) and 1996 (with Willem Dafoe).

While I enjoyed Victory and especially Chaney’s diabolical turn in the film…I’d honestly have to admit that The Wicked Darling was a slightly better movie (yet strangely enough, Lon’s villainy isn’t nearly as effective).  Priscilla Dean is Mary Stevens—not the M.D. from the 1933 picture discussed on the blog a while back, but a pickpocket nicknamed “Gutter Rose.”  She works in tandem with a fellow dipper named “Stoop” Connors (Chaney), with their ill-gotten gains being fenced by a skeevy pawnbroker (Spottiswoode Aitken) who answers to “Fadem.”  Lurking outside a lavish reception, Mary becomes the “recipient” of a valuable pearl necklace dropped by Adele Hoyt (Gertrude Astor).

On the run with the swag, Mary hides out in a house owned by Kent Mortimer (Wellington Playter), and during her brief time spent there, she learns that Hoyt was Mortimer’s fiancée…but that she dropped him like a bad habit upon learning that he’s now dead broke.  (The necklace in Mary’s possession was an engagement gift.)  Her interaction with Kent has a positive effect on Mary: she renounces the pickpocket life, and starts to earn her way in the world working as a waitress.  She even meets up with Mortimer again, falling in love with him.  However, you can take the rose out of the gutter, but you can’t take the gutter out of the rose; Connors and Fadem want their share of that stolen necklace, and Mary is terrified at the thought of Kent’s finding out about her unsavory past (he has told her in no uncertain terms: “I hate thieves”).

The Wicked Darling marked the first of ten collaborations between Chaney and director Tod Browning, and that might explain why I give Darling the edge as the better of the two movies, knowing that a number of felicitous film features would result from their teaming (The Unknown, West of Zanzibar, etc.).  The most famous of the Chaney-Browning efforts is the celebrated lost film London After Midnight (1927), and in reading Phil Hall’s In Search of Lost Films I had my memory jogged by a William K. Everson quote (Everson had seen the film, and hinted that its reputation was greatly inflated) that the movie was comprised of “[t]hree minutes of vampire footage and five reels of Polly Moran comic relief.”  But I really adored Browning’s presentation of the criminal atmosphere in Darling, and how he captures so well the seediness of the characters that inhabit it.   Victory does have an edge over Darling in that it’s a much nicer-looking print; Darling was copied from the sole surviving print in the Netherlands Filmmuseum (it was discovered in Europe in the 1990s), and it sustained some damage from wear and mildew (as well as being slightly shortened due to its Holland distribution).  As always…nitrate won’t wait, cartooners.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

“Designed to free you from the four walls of today…”

We’re kind of at the halfway point of our latest Thrilling Days of Yesteryear giveaway: a chance to win one of two Radio Spirits sets of Escape: The Hunted and the Haunted.  This 10-CD set, valued at $39.98, contains twenty vintage broadcasts of the CBS Radio series (the shows originally aired between 1948 and 1954) and a liner note booklet composed by your humble narrator.  The response has been very positive; not Johnny Dollar positive, mind you, but encouraging all the same.  You still have an opportunity to enter for a chance to win, simply by sending me an e-mail (with “The Hunted and the Haunted” in the subject header) at igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com.  Be sure and get your entry in soon—the deadline is 11:59pm EDT this Saturday, September 24…and two lucky members of the TDOY faithful will be chosen through the magic of the random number generator at

On a more somber note: the old-time radio community received a sign-off from one of The Hobby’s truly “grand old men”—David S. Siegel, who’s moved on to a better studio at the age of 84.  I was positively gobsmacked to get a phone call from him one day while he was conducting research for a book he co-wrote with J. Randolph Cox, Flashgun Casey, Crime Photographer: From the Pulps to Radio and Beyond.  He had read an entry I wrote for TDOY (back in the old Salon days) about the radio Casey, and asked me if I had any additional information on the show.  I sheepishly had to tell him that the content for the blog post came from the Radio Spirits collection booklet that accompanied the CDs to which I listened.  What I remember most about this encounter with Dave was that he was of enormously good spirits about the “dead end”; he explained that he had to explore every avenue when researching his subject, and even graciously sent me a gratis copy of one of his other books (co-written with series creator Alonzo Deen Cole), The Witch’s Tale: Stories of Gothic Horror from the Golden Age of Radio—which sits on my bookshelf even today.

Eventually, I was able to give David an assist on a project: he had been asked by Radio Spirits to write the liner notes for a collection of Witch’s Tale broadcasts, and he called me to ask how he would go about it…so I sent him a sample of notes that I had finished for a previous assignment.  He later asked me in September of 2011 if I’d be interested in contributing to an encyclopedia he and author Jack French were editing on old-time radio western shows.  That book would be published in 2013 as Radio Rides the Range (the chapters on The Roy Rogers Show and Tales of the Texas Rangers were my contributions).  Some of the other books that David wrote without my help include Remembering Radio: An Oral History of Old-Time Radio (available on Kindle) and Radio and the Jews: The Untold Story of How Radio Influenced the Image of Jews (co-written with his wife Susan; the two also collaborated on a number of tomes known as “The Used Book Lover’s Guide” series).

I wasn’t as close to David Siegel as many others in the old-time radio community…but I always enjoyed hearing from him when he called; I remember we once had a conversation in which he expressed his disappointment with some hobbyists as they were convinced that they were sitting on a gold mine when it came to uncirculated transcriptions.  David firmly believed that OTR was to share (I’ve heard a number of stories of how he helped people new to The Hobby with getting collections started) and he said matter-of-factly to me: “Unless it’s something to do with Elvis or The Beatles, you’re not going to make any money off it.”  Dave Siegel was one of the kindest, most generous individuals I’ve known in the old-time radio community; they’ll be laying him to rest Friday (September 23) and fittingly, his wife Susan has asked J. David Goldin—“The Man Who ‘Saved’ Radio”—to deliver the eulogy and Goldin’s CD “Themes Like Old Times” will play at the funeral home as folks gather for his service.  Sadly, I can’t be there…but I’m hoping that when David reaches his final place of rest he’ll get to meet many of the voices that enthralled him in this wonderful hobby.

B-Western Wednesdays: Trouble in Sundown (1939)

As he opens the Sundown State Bank for another day of fiduciary operations, president John Cameron (Howard C. Hickman) boasts to the customers waiting in line that the vault where their money is stored is “burglar-proof”—because he’s the only one with the combination.  Then the door to the vault swings open, and the dead body of the night watchman falls to the floor.  (Apparently it is not watchman-proof.)

The bank has been robbed of its $90,000 in cash reserves…and the depositors?  Well, they are not happy campers.  Suspicion for the theft falls on Cameron; after all, he’s the only one who could have conceivably opened that bad boy up!  As upright and outstanding citizens Tex (Monte Montague) and Dusty (Ward Bond) start riling up their fellow Sundownians for a party (necktie, that is), Clint Bradford (George O’Brien) just happens to ride into town with his sidekicks Andy (Ray Whitley) and “Whopper” (Chill Wills).  Clint, who’s kinda sweet on Cameron’s daughter June (Rosalind Keith), tells the beleaguered bank prez to hie himself to a cabin in Red Rock Canyon and hide out there since the crowd is turning ugly (and that’s not much of a turn).

Naturally, Cameron is innocent of the robbery: the mastermind behind the heist is crooked real estate agent Ross Daggett (Cy Kendall), whose eevill scheme is to get control of the bank so he can then get his greasy fingers on all of the ranches in the valley (Cameron is carrying a lot of these people on the bank’s books, and they won’t be able to settle up until after the fall cattle drive).  Daggett sends Tex and Dusty to Red Rock Canyon so that those two goons can terminate the banker with extreme prejudice, making it look like a suicide.  They’re able to coerce Cameron into signing a suicide note, but before they can continue with their foul deed Clint comes riding up with deputy Larry Harrison (Jack Perrin).  There’s a shoot-out; Deputy Larry is gunned down…and if that robbery deal wasn’t bad enough Cameron has a murder rap to beat.  (Not one of his better days.)

The last time we visited with R-K-O cowboy star George O’Brien on the blog was when his offbeat oater Gold Raiders (1951—with the Three Stooges!) was reviewed on B-Western Wednesdays in 2012.  Best known among classic movie fans for his John Ford Western silents (The Iron Horse, 3 Bad Men) and the F.W. Murnau masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), by the time the movies started to talk O’Brien had a new career as a cowboy star—he inked a contract with independent producer George A. Hirlman in 1936, and those B-Westerns were subsequently released by R-K-O.  Then R-K-O decided to eliminate the middleman, and O’Brien began to make programmers for the studio directly.

I caught Trouble in Sundown (1939) on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ some time back, and all I can say is that it better take care if I find it’s been creeping ‘round my back stairs.  (Hey…when was the last time you read a blog post with a Gordon Lightfoot reference?)  All seriousness aside, I’ll state up front that it’s also available on a 3-DVD set entitled the George O’Brien Western Collection…but having not viewed it in that fashion, I simply have to go by what I DVR’d from TCM.  Their print is in better shape than it should be, though its opening titles are a little rough (I strongly suspect the film’s negative got the “Movietime” treatment that a lot of the entries in the R-K-O library received when they sold many of these titles to TV).

Despite the shabbiness afforded its opening titles, Sundown is not a bad little B; O’Brien is a real two-fisted he-man hero, and he doesn’t have to resort to any fancy Dan singing or strumming a guitar (well, he’s got Ray Whitley to do that: Ray sings Prairie Winds and Home on the Prairie with the Phelps Brothers).  Chill Wills is never my first choice as a comic relief sidekick but he’s easy to take, and Rosalind Keith is sweet as George’s girlfriend (the wrap-up to this one suggests that the two of them will be tying the knot).

Sundown’s strengths include a really first-rate supporting cast: you’ve got Ward Bond paying his dues as one of the henchmen, and Cy Kendall—known for his villainy in serials like The Green Hornet (1940) and Jungle Queen (1945)—doing that voodoo that he do so well as the unscrupulous Daggett (his name should have given him away).  (Also, too: Cy is billed as “Cyrus W. Kendall”—nice goin’, podnuh!)  There’s a plethora of veterans in this one as well: John Dilson, Lloyd Ingraham, Tom London—it’s a casting call for a Lone Ranger episode!

I also enjoyed how George rounds up the bad guys in this one—I won’t give it away, because if you haven’t seen it you should—a very clever plot twist courtesy of Oliver Drake, Dorrell McGowan, and Stuart E. McGowan (from a story by Charles F. Royal).  B-Western director David Howard directed this and several other entries in the O’Brien franchise, keeping things moving like any good traffic cop.

The original title of this oater was A Knight in Ghost Town—which I actually like better, and it would have spared you that lame joke I made several paragraphs earlier.  I really dig the R-K-O Westerns because even when they were forced to skimp on the budgets…they always have a professional-looking sheen.