Wednesday, November 30, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: Johnny Mack Brown Double Feature - Man from Sonora (1951) and Outlaw Gold (1950)

There’s a reason why I tackled two entries for this week’s edition of B-Western Wednesdays.  I put one of Johnny Mack Brown’s Monogram vehicles in the DVD player (Outlaw Gold [1950]) last week and the moment the closing credits rolled, I completely forgot what the damn thing was about.  (This sort of thing doesn’t lend itself to good film reviews, by the way.)  And I felt guilty about this—though in my defense, I didn’t make the doggone movie—because I like generally like JMB, even in his “plump” period (this wasn’t my idea—I read it from a commenter over at the [always reliable] IMDb).  Brown is just a darn likable cowpoke; I’ve reviewed one of his Monogram features here previously and mentioned this anecdote:

…by all accounts from the people with whom he worked, Brown was the epitome of the true Southern gentleman.  He made many films with … Marshall Reed, who once related to a fan at a western film convention that Johnny would always tell his cast at the wrap: “Thanks for letting me make this film with you.”

For the record, Outlaw Gold finds our hero as a U.S. Marshal assigned to investigate a robbery involving government gold from Mexico, with the help of his deputy sidekick Sandy Barker (Milburn Monsante).  In the process of their search, the two men witness Joe Martin, the editor of Latigo City’s newspaper, and his daughter Kathy (Jane Adams) bushwhacked by assailants unknown.  Pretending not to know one another, Brown (as Johnny Mack Brown—the role he was born to play!) and Sandy agree to escort the Martins back to town; Johnny Mack will ride up ahead to interview some local ranchers and deputy Sandy continues on with Kathy and the injured Martin (shot in the arm by the desperadoes).

In Latigo City, Sandy wangles a job as a printer with the Martin’s paper…and Johnny, just arriving, is around long enough to witness Joe’s assassin finish the job with a rifle from an upstairs window.  Johnny soon finds himself accused of the deed!  Not to worry, Mr. Brown is eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, leaving him and Sandy to suspect that the man (George McDormand) who seemed mighty anxious to point fingers in the first place may be involved in some shady chicanery.

I don’t want to point fingers myself…but I suspect the reason why Outlaw Gold dissipates in the memory banks after one viewing is because apart from Myron Healey’s role as an ex-con named Sonny Lang (who’s harboring a grudge against Johnny Mack)—Healey manages to bring a little shading and nuance to what could have been a one-note performance—no one in the cast of Gold is a particular standout, nor is the plot all that memorable (though there is an amusing scene where Sandy produces the fruits of his first printing job—it looks like a ransom note).  The cast of Man from Sonora (1951), on the other hand, has a bit more “oomph” even though, like Gold, the plot of the film is little more than paint-by-numbers.

Sonora puts a twist on the hero’s occupation: Johnny Mack Brown (still playing himself) is a retired lawman who loses his valued horse “Rebel” to a gang of masked hombres who have just held up a stage on its way to Silver Springs.  (One of the men had to shoot his injured horse, and that’s why he “liberated” Johnny’s steed.)  Arriving in town, Brown gets reacquainted with his old pal Frank Casey (Lyle Talbot), who’s the law in Silver Springs, and Johnny tells the sheriff about the three men who put the snatch on Rebel.  Johnny’s got a hunch that one of the outlaws, Duke Mantel (Lee Roberts), is throwing a few back in the saloon, because of his loud, distinctive laugh (the masked man who swiped Johnny’s horse had a similar guffaw).  When Johnny enters the watering hole as the guest of Ed Hooper (House Peters, Jr.), Duke and his pal Pete (John Merton) start a little trouble…and Frank is forced to lock up both Duke and Johnny.

Hooper bails Duke out—Duke works for him as one of his “peelers”—and along with banker Fred Allison (Sam Flint), informs lawman Casey that his pal Johnny must vamoose out of Silver Springs; it’s all politics, you understand—Casey’s hands are tied in the matter.  This will prove most beneficial for Johnny Mack Brown; it will give him the opportunity to drop by Hooper’s spread and look for the missing Rebel.

There are a good number of serials/B-Western veterans in Man from Sonora: I always smile whenever I see John Merton onscreen (I read somewhere that whenever an oater or chapter play was being cast they took special pains to make sure Merton was on the list because he had several mouths to feed), and he’s in his element here as one of Peters’ henchmen.  Peters’ villain is a real piece of work, cold-bloodedly gunning down John and serial hero Dennis Moore (as a bad guy!) when things start to close in on him.  Phyllis “Gypsy” Coates, who also appeared in Oklahoma Justice (1951), is the banker’s daughter and kind of sweet on Johnny (there is no kiss at the fadeout, however, because Johnny has no use for wimmin folk despite always being courtly in their presence) …though as in Justice, Coates has very little to do.  Western veteran Pierce Lyden appears briefly as a harness salesman who draws his rations early (allowing Dennis Moore to impersonate him).

Both Outlaw Gold and Man from Sonora are present and accounted for on the Warner Archive MOD set Monogram Cowboy Collection Volume 1, which is also available for rent from the good people at ClassicFlix.  This past weekend, Rancho Yesteryear was the beneficiary of a Starz/Encore/Movieplex “freeview”—and I had hoped to snag a download of The Lone Star Trail (1943), a Johnny Mack-Tex Ritter Universal B-oater that I watched on Encore Westerns back in what I jokingly call my “carefree bachelor days” (before the ‘rents and I decided to share living space).  But I wasn’t able to get it off the On Demand in time.  Bummer.the doggone thing--because   And I felt guilty about this--though  credits rolled, I completely forgot what the damn thin

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

From the DVR: Pop Always Pays (1940)

Jeff Thompson (Dennis O’Keefe) is one of those guys who can’t hold onto a dollar.  He hasn’t even paid off the car he owns now when he’s in the market for a new one—much to the consternation of his fiancée, Edna Brewster (Pamela Blake, billed here as “Adele Pearce”).  You see, Jeff has an annoying habit of absentmindedly neglecting the payments on his present automobile, and every month, it’s a race between him and Murphy (Tom Kennedy)—the man from the finance company who lives for repossessing Jeff’s ride—as to who’s going to get to the loan office in time to square the loan.  Fortunately for Thompson, Murphy is a Man With Very Little Brain…and after a few sly maneuvers Jeff soon owns his transport free and clear.

Jeff’s economic difficulties are putting the kibosh on any potential nuptials with Edna.  The couple would like to tie the knot, but Edna’s father Henry (Leon Errol) isn’t convinced that her husband-to-be can support her in the manner to which she’s accustomed.  He proposes a wager: when Jeff has saved $1000, Henry will match it with a grand of his own.  Complication ensue, of course, when it looks as if Henry won’t be able to keep his part of the bargain!

Classic movie fans might recognize this phenomenon: we all know of one performer that we enjoy watching in a movie even if the vehicle they’re in gives off the distinct odor of limburger cheese wrapped in an old gym sock.  For me, that performer is Leon Errol; I can’t help it, the funnyman makes me laugh.  Errol is perhaps best remembered for a series of two-reel comedies he appeared in for RKO from the 1930s to the early 1950s (his last short for the studio was released a few months after his passing in 1951), and while working at that same studio co-starred with Lupe Velez in a film franchise known as the Mexican Spitfire series.  Leon appears in other features like The Great Man’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) and Abbott & Costello’s The Noose Hangs High (1948) …and was last seen in this space appearing with Shemp Howard in Strictly in the Groove (1942).

Pop Always Pays (1940) is no classic, I’ll concede that right off the bat.  It’s not much more than a padded version of the kind of two-reel comedies he was involved with at RKO, and even those shorts tend to suffer from a suffocating sameness.  (“Hey, this is that Leon Errol two-reeler where he has a misunderstanding with his wife!”)  But I enjoy the hell out of them—I wish The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ would feature them more regularly than those Pete Smith shorts which have become wearisome with repetitiveness, and when I selected Pop Always Pays from the quickly bulging-to-capacity DISH DVR I knew it wasn’t going to be a ponderous meditation on the human spirit…it was just going to make me laugh like a hyena.

And it did.  I loved the wonderful chemistry between Leon and Marjorie Gateson: she plays Leon’s wife, and she always manages to stay one step ahead of her hub without resorting to the usual movie “shrew” stereotype.  The pair would appear in one additional film, Universal’s Moonlight in Hawaii (1941), but I think that if she had been available to appear in some of Leon’s RKO shorts it would have been quite refreshing.  Errol also has some funny scenes with Walter Catlett, playing the sponging next-door neighbor who always seems to come out on top despite whatever mess he finds himself in, and Effie Anderson, who portrays Errol and Gateson’s long-suffering maid.

Dennis O’Keefe is not someone whose very presence brightens my very existence, but he’s very easy to take in Pop Always Pays—and his scenes with Tom Kennedy (another TDOY fave) are a highlight, particularly an Abbott & Costello-inspired bit where Den says he’ll give Tom a nickel for every quarter he can stand on end.  (It might remind you of a similar exchange between Lou and wisenheimer Walter Tetley in Who Done It?)  Pamela Blake is quite charming in the ingénue role, and Pop also features a great supporting cast including Robert Middlemass, Erskine Sanford, Vivien Oakland (she plays Middlemass’ wife here—but she was Leon’s spouse in many of his two-reelers), Stanley Blystone, Frank Faylen, Walter Sande, and noted Shakespearean performer Gus Schilling.  Pop Always Pays was directed by comedy veteran Leslie Goodwins (who helmed a lot of the Mexican Spitfire vehicles) and scripted by Charles E. Roberts (from a story by Arthur J. Beckard), also responsible for the Lum & Abner feature Partners in Time (1946)—recently reviewed by me on the Radio Spirits blog.n I slid

Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Review: Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America

We had a total of nine trick-or-treaters ring the doorbell at Rancho Yesteryear this year.  Nine.  We had enough candy for nine hundred, of course; my mother has this habit of looking at the amount of candy she’s purchased each Halloween, and saying ruefully: “I don’t think this is going to be enough.”  This October 31, she actually ventured out that afternoon to get more candy…just to be on the safe side.  Suffice it to say, we were safe.  Very safe.

Now, in past years—this glut of Halloween candy would not have been a problem…because I would have made certain it did not go to waste.  If you’re a regular member of the TDOY faithful, though, you know that any future trips to Candyland for yours truly were nipped in the bud back in July when my doctor motioned for me to come a little bit closer in order to say “Psst…just between you, me, and the lamppost—you’re diabetic.”  (Let me just take this moment to thank everyone who bestowed well-wishes and empathies upon me at that time…particularly those who refrained from remarking “No sh*t, Sherlock.”)  So, we had this ginormous basket of candy sitting around Castle Yesteryear, and two of its subjects unable to enjoy the basket’s contents.  (The other member of the household, mi madre, doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth…but when the fever does hit her, she now buys the kind of candy I don’t like.)

So, as I was tossing a bit o’trash into the kitchen receptacle last week…my eyes laid witness to the saddest sight I have ever seen.  Mom had thrown away all the leftover candy.  The M&M’s (peanut and plain), the Snickers (regular and the peanut butter ones), the Butterfingers…murdered.  I was devastated.  I wept quietly, and gathered up the trash bag to take out to the bin on the carport, where I presided over a small Mass.  I’m saddened to report that the turnout for the funeral was not what I was hoping for; a couple of the neighborhood dogs ambled by (attracted to the candy corpses, no doubt), and I saw one of the kids on our street pedaling a bicycle in the distance.  Requiems can be a bummer.

The untimely demise of the Halloween candy prompted me to sit down with an e-book (another $1.99 bargain from BookBub) I bought back in June of 2015.  It’s called Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, and it was written by an appropriately-named gentleman named Steve Almond (his other books include My Life in Heavy Metal and Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life: A Book By and For the Fanatics Among Us), an author and rock music critic.  First published in 2002, Candyfreak is an ode to one man’s mania for candy.  Almond has eaten a piece of candy every single day of his entire life, and is so obsessed he hoards 3-7 lbs. of the sweet stuff in his domicile at all times.  I knew Steve wasn’t just exaggerating about this in the opening pages of the book, where he says a silent prayer for the Marathon bar, “which stormed the racks in 1974, enjoyed a meteoric rise, died young, and left a beautiful corpse.”

The Marathon: a rope of caramel covered in chocolate, not even a solid piece that is, half air holes, an obvious rip-off to anyone who has mastered the basic Piagetian stages, but we couldn’t resist the gimmick.  And then, as if we weren’t bamboozled enough, there was the sleek red package, which included a ruler on the back and thereby affirmed the First Rule of Male Adolescence:  If you give a teenage boy a candy bar with a ruler on the back of the package, he will measure his dick.

There are not enough words in my admittedly longwinded vocabulary to describe how much I loved—and miss to this very day—Marathon bars.  (I’m told that Curly Wurlys are similar…but I’ll guess I’ll never know.)  In Candyfreak, Almond channels his inner Roald Dahl and makes arrangements to visit the factories of those candies still being produced locally: Valomilk Bars in Merriam, Kansas; Idaho Spuds in Boise; Twin Bings in Sioux City, Iowa (the Palmer Candies company); Lake Champlain candies in Vermont; and Goo Goo Clusters in Nashville.  (The only one of these I have sampled is the last one; I’ve been told that there are Cracker Barrels that carry Valomilks but I’ve not come across one yet.)  Almond also drops in at the Annabelle Candy Company in Hayward, CA (not far from Steve’s original stomping grounds), makers of Big Hunk and Abba-Zaba bars (you might be familiar with this last one if you’ve ever watched Half Baked). 

Did Almond get a tour of the Big Three (Nestlé, Hershey, Mars)?  No, because all that chocolate espionage you saw in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the 1971 original, natch) wasn’t just a fictional plot device; candy makers really do keep closely-guarded secrets.  (He was denied a tour at Boston’s Cambridge Brands—makers of Junior Mints, Sugar Babies, and Charleston Chews [Mom’s favorite when she indulges]—because Tootsie Roll Industries, which owns Cambridge, said “nothin’ doin’.”)

I’m sure you’re asking yourself right now: why on Earth would a guy who’s had to eliminate his sweets intake read a book about such forbidden fruit?  Well, I never said I was sane (and I have witnesses to back this up).  Candyfreak is such a wonderful read, and it brought back a flood of memories of those halcyon days of indulging in chocolate and candy fantasies.  Remember those mammoth candy counters inside the Sears Department Stores?  The one my mother always patronized had that section planted right where you walked in the front door!

“At about age ten, during a late summer visit to Sears to buy school clothes, I became aware of the concept of candy by the pound.  This was revolutionary.  Here were entire stalls of candy, naked as the day they were born, piled up two feet high and God knows how deep, glittering behind glass windows.  You might have thought I was staring at tropical fish in an aquarium.  Or you might have been the poor clerk forced to sit inside the Sears candy stand on one of the many ensuing Saturdays, which meant you faced an odd decision: whether or not to call security on the little, bubble-eyed goon circling your station, which was me.”

“Candy is the Dow Jones of the kid economy,” Almond asserts, as he reminisces with a trip in the WABAC when the Bubble Yum craze took over in 1975.  And, since it was the death rattle of that Halloween candy Mom chucked out in le garbage that nudged me toward reading this book, I identified strongly with this passage:

“Now: I’m a great lover of visual art and I will happily discuss the color and texture of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or the way in which the eye is led into Goya’s The Third of May 1808, and even though I don’t really know what I’m talking about, I can get myself awfully worked up, just as a fine sentence or paragraph (say, the opening salvo of Henderson the Rain King) can send me into shivery rapture.  But I can think of nothing on earth so beautiful as the final haul on Halloween night, which, for me, was ten to fifteen pounds of candy, a riot of colored wrappers and hopeful fonts, snub-nosed chocolate bars and SweeTARTS, the seductive rattle of Jujyfruits and Good & Plenty and lollipop sticks all akimbo, the foil ends of mini LifeSavers packs twinkling like dimes, and a thick sugary perfume rising up from the pillowcase.”

My sister Kat can’t stand red velvet cake.  Which is odd, because I don’t have a problem with it…but I have noticed that due to the current sugar smackdown (the only consolation I have made is strawberry preserves on an occasional PB&J…because that sugar-free jam is abominable) I’m not quite as discriminating as I once was.  Kat posted on Facebook that red velvet cake is the disappointment of the dessert world, which led to a lot of jokes along the lines of “Circus peanuts are the red velvet cake of the candy world.”  So I was tickled when I read Almond’s declarations about MWM (Mistakes Were Made) candy, the top two examples being Twizzlers (“Twizzlers bears roughly the same chemical relationship to strawberry as the Vienna Sausage does to filet mignon…which is to say: none”) and Jujubes (“if one were to set Jujubes beside pencil erasers in a blind taste test, it would be tough to make a distinction, except that pencil erasers have more natural fruit flavor”).  Here are some others:

Marshmallow Peeps: A candy that encourages the notion that it is acceptable to eat child offspring.  Composed of marshmallow dyed piss yellow and sprinkled with sugar.

Circus Peanuts: Again, a marshmallow pretending to be something else, this time a legume.  An affront to elephants everywhere.

Boston Baked Beans: If you are an actual peanut, why are you not covered in chocolate?  Why are you covered, instead, in some kind of burnt-tasting brick red shell?  Is the idea that you resemble a baked bean supposed to make you more alluring?

Jordan Almonds: Who chose the color scheme, Zsa Zsa Gabor?

Chuckles: A fruit jelly the consistency of cartilage.  Explain.

Sixlets: Those of us over the age of, say, three can usually differentiate between chocolate and brown wax.

White jelly beans: I defy you to tell me what flavor white is supposed to signify.  Pineapple?  Coconut?  Isopropyl?

Lime LifeSavers: The LifeSavers people haven’t figured out by now that no one likes this flavor?  (Ivan’s note: I like Lime LifeSavers.  Or I used to, anyway.)

Author Almond also confesses a prejudice towards coconut—which makes for some giggly moments whenever he must sample candy bars containing his bête noire during his factory journeys.  “Oddly, it isn’t the flavor of coconut that troubles me, but the texture, and specifically that stringy residue utterly impervious to the normal processes of digestion.  In short, I feel as if I’m chewing on a sweetened cuticle.  Anyone who’s eaten a Mounds knows what I’m talking about.”  (I didn’t care for coconut when I was a kid…but I gradually warmed up to it as I started marching toward my dotage.)  Steve’s not a white chocolate fan, either; “When I was eight or nine years old I flew from California to New York with my twin brother, Mike.  We were unchaperoned and therefore doted on by the stewardesses, who snuck us each a special dessert from first class: a white chocolate lollipop.  I wolfed mine down and, shortly thereafter, got violently ill.  This was mortifying at the time.  In retrospect, I’m sort of proud of myself.”

“A few years ago, my friends began urging me to write a book about candy,” Almond explains at the beginning of Candyfreak.  “Their reasoning ran as follows: Maybe if Steve writes about candy, he will shut up about candy.”  Me, I’m glad he wrote about candy—because even though my intake is now limited to nocturnal flights of fancy, I tremendously enjoyed reading a book about one man’s confectionery passion.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

“Winning isn’t everything, but wanting it is.” – Arnold Palmer

And with that inspiring quote from the late champion golfer and Xarelto pitchman, I am pleased to announce the winners in Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s recent giveaway!  After sacrificing a small goat to the gods, the winners chosen were Todd J. and C.N.M.!  Congratulations to them both; they will soon be receiving a copy of the Radio Spirits X-Minus One collection Time and Time Again, guranteed to provide hours of listening enjoyment.  (Eight hours, to be precise—there are sixteen episodes on the set.)

As always, I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to hand out a copy to everyone who entered (we had a good turnout on this one), but be of good cheer, TDOY faithful—I’ll have one more contest this year to give away free old-time radio swag, so keep an eye out for the announcement in two weeks.  Remember: Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Adventures in Blu-Ray: Macbeth (1948)

There’s something about “The Scottish Play” that lends itself to first-rate film adaptations.  It’s William Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, which makes it perfect for those moviegoers with attention span deficits; the various cinematic versions include a 1908 effort from J. Stuart Blackston (the earliest known film version—it’s unknown as of this writing if a print exists); Roman Polanski’s 1971 incarnation (produced in the aftermath of his wife Sharon Tate’s murder at the hand of the Manson family); and a feature directed by Justin Kurzel that was released just last year.

I’ve seen the Polanski film but I’ve yet to view Kurzel’s movie.  But I don’t think it would matter much, because my favorite silver screen treatment of Macbeth is the one from 1948, with our obedient servant Orson Welles in the director’s chair.  There are any number of reasons why:  I’m a huge Welles fan, and the wunderkind had a special affinity for Shakespeare—he performed in a few of The Immortal Bard’s plays while in prep school, and after making the acquaintance of stage legend Katharine Cornell, he was assigned the part of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet in a repertory company headed up by Cornell’s husband, Guthrie McClintic.  Orson later received much critical acclaim for his Voodoo Macbeth, an all-black version of the play that he staged for the Federal Theatre Project in 1936.

A year later, Welles would produce the audacious Caesar—a version of Julius Caesar in modern dress that was quite anti-fascist in manner and tone; Orson’s good chum Joseph Cotten described it as “so vigorous, so contemporary that it set Broadway on its ear.”  Orson would then breathe life into Five Kings (Part One)—a five-hour presentation incorporating parts of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III—for a 1939 stage production, tackle Othello in 1951 (Welles would later bring the tragic tale of the Moor to the big screen in 1952), and pay tribute to King Lear in 1956.  Chimes at Midnight, a production featuring portions of Henry IV, Henry V, Richard III, and The Merry Wives of Windsor trod the stage boards in 1960, and Orson later adapted it in motion picture form in 1965 (a movie some have called his very best).

Herbert J. Yates
Versions of Hamlet and Twelfth Night got the Welles treatment on radio’s The Columbia Workshop while the director’s signature program, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, made time on its schedule for yet another take on Julius Caesar.  There’s no doubt about it: Orson Welles loved his Shakespeare—so much so that it took him three years to fund and film Othello (he was truly an independent producer on this one—he used the money from other acting jobs to finance the stop-and-start production).  In 1948, his stock in the industry was still solid enough that he could convince Republic Studios head Herbert J. Yates to let him tackle a low-budget version of Macbeth.

This is the main reason why I love Orson’s Macbeth so.  It was filmed at Republic Pictures.  Republic, the MGM of the Poverty Row studios; they had no peer when it came to cranking out serials and B-Westerns, but on the A-picture side Republic was lucky if they put out one or two of those a year…and it was even money that it would be a film featuring the studio’s big draw, John Wayne.  Yates’ Republic had gotten a little adventurous before Macbeth; both Jealousy (1945; an experimental noir directed by Gustav Machaty) and Specter of the Rose (1946; written and directed by the legendary Ben Hecht) were lensed at the studio, and the success of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) persuaded Herbert J. to budget $700,000 for Orson’s film.

Republic’s board of directors were understandably a little nervous about Orson’s participation in the Macbeth project, notably because of the director’s reputation for cinematic profligacy.  (Something, by the way, that has acquired mythic proportions; director Peter Bogdanovich dismissed it all as bovine excrement, firmly stating that Welles paid great attention to economy when filmmaking.)  Welles allayed their fears by having a clause inserted into his contract that he would make up the difference should the movie go overbudget.  Orson filmed Macbeth in 23 days (with one day for retakes) on the same soundstages that once saw “Gabby” Hayes proclaim “dadgummit” to Roy Rogers; the director was able to cut corners by filming many scenes in long, fluid takes; pre-recording much of the dialogue in advance (the cast ended up doing a lot of lip-synching); and taking advantage of an invite from the Utah Centennial Festival in 1947 to stage six performances of the play at the University of Utah (this gave Welles the rehearsal time he couldn’t afford with Republic’s stringent budget).

"Bubble, bubble/Toil and trouble..."
Welles’ Macbeth has been released in any number of home video incarnations but the recent Olive Signature Blu-ray/DVD—which hit stores November 15th—stands head-and-shoulders above all the rest.  It’s a two-disc collection; the first disc contains a new High Def digital transfer of Welles’ 1948 film (with audio commentary by Joseph McBride, author of three books on O.W.), and the second features the 1950 re-release of the movie along with some truly eels shorter from its original 107-minute length) and the burrs were eliminated with re-dubbingeare'e of an invite kes) on tsmashing bonus features.  Not many people saw the 1948 version on its initial release; it was in competition at the Venice Film Festival that year but was overshadowed by the critical enthusiasm for Olivier’s Hamlet.  The audiences that did see Welles’ Macbeth (in a select number of U.S. cities) bitched about the cast’s accents (they fashioned authentic Scottish burrs) and the fact that Orson took a few liberties with Shakespeare’s play (among the modifications were more emphasis on “The Weird Sisters” and the addition of a character in “The Holy Father,” played by future Batman butler Alan Napier).  Macbeth went back into the editing room (it was now two reels shorter from its original 107-minute length) and the burrs were eliminated thanks to re-dubbing.

A while back on the blog, I did a write-up on a documentary on the legendary B-picture director Edgar G. Ulmer—which features author Gregory W. Mank’s right-on-the-money observation that as a filmmaker, Ulmer “had to take a rat…and make Thanksgiving dinner out of it…”  That’s kind of what Welles did here; true, Republic Pictures productions had a bit more professional sheen than, say, something cranked out at Monogram or PRC…but the handcuffs of the tight budget necessitated that Welles do a lot of improvisation.   The opening scenes of Macbeth made me smile because Orson relied on the B-movie director’s best friend (fog), and a lot of the staging that he used for his Shakespearean theatrical presentations (risers, staircases and the like) figure into the film as well.  Most importantly, he puts great emphasis on the audacious audio techniques that he honed in his earlier radio days.

Evil never looked so good.
Welles wanted Vivien Leigh to play Lady Macbeth…but he never screwed his courage to the sticking post and asked her, because he thought her husband Larry (Olivier) would disapprove.  Tallulah Bankhead turned him down, and entreaties to old friends like Anne Baxter, Mercedes McCambridge, and Agnes Moorehead (oh, how I would have loved to seen Mercedes or Aggie in this part) didn’t pan out because those actresses had previous commitments.  So, Orson settled for TDOY crush Jeanette Nolan (making her film debut), with whom he had worked on radio’s The March of Time…and I’m going to be as blunt as I can possibly be: Jeanette is positively incredible in the role.  (Anytime someone references Lady Macbeth, Jeanette’s visage is the first image on my retinas.)  Other radio veterans in Macbeth include Edgar Barrier (as Banquo), Peggy Webber (as Lady MacDuff and one of the witches), and my other crush Lurene Tuttle (also one of the sisters, in addition to playing “A Gentlewoman”).

Roddy McDowall and John Dierkes
Dan O’Herlihy made his American feature film debut as MacDuff, with Roddy McDowall as Malcolm and Orson chums like Erskine Sanford (King Duncan), William Alland, and Gus Schilling rounding out the cast.  (Gus Schilling doing Shakespeare.  The mind boggles.)  Familiar TV face Keene Curtis (from Cheers) made his film debut in this movie, and you’ll also spot John Dierkes, Morgan Farley, and Welles’ daughter Christopher in her only film appearance as the child of MacDuff.  The striking photography comes courtesy of John L. Russell, who later was nominated for an Oscar for his cinematography on Psycho. Among the extras on the Olive Signature release: a fascinating accounting from Robert Gitt (from the UCLA Film & Television Archive) on the restoration of Macbeth; much reminiscing from Peter Bogdanovich on his friendship with Welles (his anecdotes on Orson’s The Trial made me laugh out loud); and an excerpt from We Work Again, a 1937 WPA short showing Welles working with the cast of Voodoo Macbeth.

“Unfortunately, not one critic in any part of the world chose to compliment me on the speed,” lamented Orson Welles about Macbeth at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1953.  “They thought it was a scandal that it should only take 23 days.  Of course, they were right, but I could not write to every one of them and explain that no one would give me any money for a further day's shooting.”  The fact that Welles pulled off this amazing cinematic feat with the movie equivalent of “spit and baling wire” just makes me love Macbeth that much more…and I don’t think my love affair with this Olive Signature Blu-ray will end anytime soon.  (Many thanks to Bradley Powell at Olive Films for providing TDOY with the screener—this is unquestionably their finest presentation yet.)
m for his Voodoo Macbeth (1936) Housemen) for the Federal aim for his Voodoo Macbeth (1936), an all-black version of the play t

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Ringside (1949)

Pugilist Joe O’Hara (Tom Brown) is on the fast track to winning a middleweight boxing championship, despite reservations from manager Oscar Brannigan (Joseph Crehan).  Oscar has arranged a bout for Joe to take on current champ Tiger Johnson (John Cason), and to celebrate, O’Hara’s taking his fiancée—and Oscar’s daughter—Janet (Sheila Ryan) to an intimate, cozy, out-of-the-way bistro (okay—it’s just located across the street from the fight venue), owned and operated by Papa (William Edmunds) and Mama Berger (Edit Arnold).  As screenplay luck would have it, Papa—known to his creditors as “The Professor”—has been piano teacher to Joe’s brother Mike (Don ‘Red’ Barry); once Joe wins his fight, he’ll use the money to send Br’er Mike across the pond to further advance his career as a concert pianist.

While Joe’s party rages on, a two-bit bookie named Swinger Markham (Tony Canzoneri) crashes the affair, and demands—in his intoxicated state—that he be served some beer.  Because Swinger fails to grasp the meaning of “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here,” he continues making a pest of himself until a punch thrown by Mike sends him to the sawdust floor.  Swinger drops by Joe’s workout the next day to apologize for his beastly behavior, but while he’s there he witnesses Joe take a hit to the head from his sparring partner, a punch that gives Oscar cause for concern.  A trip to the doctor (Sam Flint) later, and Joe is diagnosed with a damaged optical nerve.  The smart money would be for the boxer to take a hiatus from the sweet science, but he’s anxious to win that purse on behalf of Mike.

During the bout with the Tiger, Swinger helpfully tells Johnson’s manager about Joe’s eye…allowing Tiger to capitalize on O’Hara’s weakness by sending him to the mat in record time.  Thus, Joe is now blind and he’ll need an operation to restore his sight…but he’s a victim of the Obamacare gap and the hospital bills are piling up.  So Mike—as “Kid Cobra”! —steps into the ring in order to earn the money for his brudder.  (It’s Chopin with a ten-count!)

Ringside (1949) is one of the “co-hits” on the VCI disc Forgotten Noir Volume 8 (along with the previously reviewed Mr. District Attorney [1947] and Hi-Jacked [1950], which will appear in this space next week).  It ain’t much of a noir, and it’s not too hard to figure out why it’s forgotten.  Ringside is 66 minutes of trite boxing movie clichés, though it’s probably the only fight film that opens and concludes with narration by a boxing ring.  (I’m not making this up, and the ring sounds as if it’s auditioning for The Whistler.)  Here’s the thing: I’m not a boxing aficionado in real life, but I do like movies about boxing—Body and Soul (1947), The Set-Up (1949), The Ring (1952), The Harder They Fall (1956), etc.  I will not be putting Ringside on this list.  For starters, at no time in this movie is it suggested that any of the fights are fixed.  That is not what boxing movies do.

Ringside is a slight re-working of City for Conquest (1940); Don ‘Red’ Barry is an aspiring pianist just Arthur Kennedy in the earlier film…the twist is that Barry decides to lace up the gloves when his brother goes blind—just like Jimmy Cagney in Conquest (though Cagney lost his sight when an unscrupulous boxer rubbed rosin into his orbs).  Barry’s motivation for becoming a pugilist, however, isn’t so much financial as it is vengeful: he’s vowed to make Tiger Johnson take the permanent long count in retaliation for rendering his brother sightless.  The movie predictably spares the character from going through with his plans…to be honest, it would have made Ringside a lot more interesting (and noirish) if they had allowed Don to be guilty of homicide.  (Instead, it opts for a sappy conclusion where Barry unconvincingly plays piano at a concert hall to the cheers from Joe and the rest of the characters who had the misfortune to be in this movie.)

L-R: Tom Brown, Margia Dean, Sheila Ryan.
Because this was a Robert L. Lippert production, I was truthfully expecting the characters in this film to spend the running time talking about boxing as opposed to demonstrating it.  (I will also point out—to no one’s surprise, of that much I am certain—that despite the loud noise of the crowd you rarely see a gathering commensurate to the sound effects in the arena.  Maybe this is an example of Fight Club.)  That this film was a product of the Lippert factory explains why there are so many familiar Lippert faces: Barry (Tough Assignment), Sheila Ryan (Mask of the Dragon), Margia Dean (FBI Girl), Lyle Talbot (Fingerprints Don’t Lie), and Edit Angold (also in Assignment), to name just a few.  Joe Crehan is the guy you’ve seen in a gazillion Crime Does Not Pay shorts; John L. Cason a serials and B-Western veteran, and Tom Brown also obtained chapter play immortality playing the titular hero of The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack (1943).  (Character fave Chester Clute has an amusing bit in Ringside as a timid spectator who explains that he doesn’t like Tiger Johnson because he reminds him too much of his mother-in-law.)

Joey Adams
The opening credits of Ringside “introduce” three thespians to the world of motion pictures: Joey Adams, who plays the comic relief role that Sid Melton would have taken had he not been elsewhere (maybe Sid had a funeral to attend), was a longtime New York Post columnist (he penned the "Strictly for Laughs" feature, and his wife Cindy wrote gossip for the same rag).  Tony Canzoneri, who plays Swinger, was a former champion featherweight (in the 1920s); Ringside was not his first rodeo, by the way—he had bit parts in two earlier features, Mr. Broadway (1933) and Let’s Live Tonight (1935) (you can also spot him in The Quiet Man).  Ringside seems to have been both Mark Plant’s debut and cinematic swan song—his only other credit at the (always reliable) IMDb is as “Emcee in Tarzan Costume” (I swear I’m not making this up) in a 1937 Universal short, Rhapsody in Zoo (1937).  (A pun only Andrew “Grover” Leal could love.)

Thursday, November 24, 2016

For what it’s Worth

Here’s an extra post on the day that Thrilling Days of Yesteryear normally reviews a bit o’silent cinema:  Edward Lorusso, who’s sponsored successful Kickstarter campaigns in the past to restore Marion Davies feature films like Enchantment (1921) and The Bride’s Play (1922), is passing the hat around again to purchase and refurbish a 35mm print of Beauty’s Worth, also from 1922.  Worth is in the public domain and according to Ed “is one of hundreds of silent films preserved in archives or in private collections, unseen by the vast majority of film buffs and historians.”

The goal for the print of Worth is $3,000, and once purchased, Lorusso will commission a professional score.  Undercrank Productions’ own Ben Model was the accompanist on The Bride’s Play, and artists like Donald Sosin (whom you can hear on the new DVD release of When Comedy Was King [1960]) and David Drazin have also contributed to past projects.  If you can pony up $25, you’ll receive a DVD copy of Beauty’s Worth in a paper sleeve; Ed notes that if the campaign is a big success that disc will be in a DVD case (with art) to domestic donors (the cost of postage, alas, means that international donors will have to settle for the sleeve).  Apparently enough enthusiasm was generated for Lorusso’s past campaigns (including Marion’s The Restless Sex [1920], Gloria Swanson’s For Better, For Worse [1919], and Bebe Daniels’ Ducks and Drakes [1921]) that he could afford the cases with cover art (the only one I’ve funded so far was Bride’s Play, which was ensconced in a case) so there’s a good chance Worth will be cased as well (at I write this, close to $1800 had been collected).

From the campaign:

Marion Davies stars as a repressed Quaker raised by two old maid aunts.  She is allowed to go to a seaside resort one summer where she follows her childhood friend (Hallam Cooley) who she thinks she's in love with.  A gold digger (June Elvidge) however, has designs on the rich man.  After being insulted and ridiculed by the gold digger, Davies comes upon a lonely painter (Forrest Stanley) who can't be bothered with the rich young things up at the hotel.  He is instantly charmed by the innocent girl and they become friends.  When he hears her story of unrequited love he sets out to help her by designing new clothes for her and selecting her to star in his elaborate tableaux at the hotel.  Presto chango, Davies becomes a new woman.

Whether or not I’ll be able to kick in for this will be determined on how much I’ll get for the plasma this week.  I’m joking, of course—but I did ask my pal Lara at Backlots if it was worth the investment, and she responded that it was one of her favorite Davies films.  (Full disclosure: Lara is at work on a full-length biography on Marion, so her judgment might be a teensy bit clouded.)  She mentioned to me that she thought Beauty’s Worth had already been restored and I replied that I had no info on that.  Per Mr. Lorusso: “Beauty’s Worth has indeed been floating around for years in a grainy print from a VHS release by Videobrary.  Not only is the print grainy, but it is run at the wrong speed, making this 7-reel film run almost 2 hours.  At the correct speed, it should run around 77 minutes.”  (I have a sneaking suspicion that Videobrary print is the origin for this release here.  I got a little nostalgic when I saw the mention of Videobrary, by the way, since I bought several VHS copies of some Columbia two-reel comedies from them many, many, many years back.)

So if you’re a fan of Marion Davies—or even a silent film fan in general—and are interested in seeing Beauty’s Worth come to fruition, click here for the details.  Best of luck to Edward on the campaign, and now—if you’ll excuse me—I think I can get a couple of dollars for those pop cans we’ve been storing on the carport.

Thoroughly MODern Alley: Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924)

The time is 1923, a few years after the Armistice…and the location is Köpenick, a suburb of Berlin.  In Köpenick, Polish refugees struggle to keep body and soul together—not an easy task, since food is scarce (and expensive) and jobs even more so.  A family consisting of The Professor (Erville Alderson), The Grandmother (Helen Lowell), The Aunt (Marcia Harris), and sons Theodor (Frank Puglia) and Paul (Neil Hamilton) occupy a few cramped rooms in Köpenick—Paul, a veteran of WWI, has just recently rejoined the family…much to the delight of Inga (Carol Dempster), an orphan who’s been living with the family since she was barely able to walk.  Inga and Paul are sweethearts, so it’s important to remember that their romance isn’t at all creepy because they come from different families.

Paul finds work in a shipyard, but it’s not too long before he falls deathly ill from all that poison gas he was exposed to at the battlefront.  He manages to walk it off and rub some dirt on it, and as proof of “Isn’t life wonderful?” he and Inga announce to the family that they plan to be wed.  Grandmama wont consent to the marriage—she points out to the starry-eyed couple that they have no money, no house, and no means of subsistence (food)—and until she does, the pair won’t be hearing wedding bells soon.  But with pluck and determination—Paul obtains a plot of land on which to grow food, and builds a small cottage out of wood from used ammunition crates—those two just might make it after all.

Geoffrey Moss’ 1924 novel Isn’t Life Wonderful (also known as Dawn) inspired what many folks consider to be one of David Wark Griffith’s finest films.  At the time of Wonderful’s release, however, moviegoers said “Naw, mang”; despite positive critical buzz, Isn’t Life Wonderful was a bust at the box office and after it finished its theatrical run D.W. left United Artists for Paramount.  Kino’s VHS release of the film has been OOP for quite some time (for curious reasons, it didn’t make the cut on any of their Griffith Masterworks DVD sets) but Flicker Alley has seen fit to offer Wonderful as one of their many MOD titles.  (Grapevine Video also sells the movie, but its copy’s running time is a shorter 98 minutes.)

To be honest, I wasn’t quite as effusive about Isn’t Life Wonderful as some folks.  I recognize that there are some striking sequences in the film: the most memorable being where Dempster’s Inga stands in an indeterminately lengthy queue at the butcher’s shop…because after pooling her money with brother Theodor (who works at a nightclub while putting himself through school), they’re able to afford meat being offered at the inflationary prices that have resulted from Germany’s devastating financial crash.  (The director filmed this unforgettable scene on an actual street in Berlin, adding to its realism.)  That line is so very long, and as Inga waits patiently for her turn to capitalize on the bargain meat, a man emerges from the butcher shop to write the new prices on a chalkboard.  (Sadly, Inga is unable to execute any kind of transaction; the price spirals far above the amount she clutches helplessly in her hand.)

Many Wonderful fans are laudatory of Carol Dempster’s performance…though I personally thought she did a better job in Sally of the Sawdust (1925).  Dempster does have a lovely moment where, in her attempts to nurse Paul back to health, she puts two wads of cotton in her sunken cheeks to make him think she’s eating regularly and well.  (I kept expecting a title card to read: “Never tell anyone outside the Family what you are thinking again.”)  Neil Hamilton—The Man Who Would Be Commissioner Gordon—is okay in his role if nothing spectacular; still, the entire cast is quite solid and you might be as entertained as I was to see Lupino Lane in one of his early showcases as a musician who’s thrown his lot in with the family (he does some amusing acrobatic bits in a sequence where the family lets their hair down singing and dancing after a sumptuous meal of potatoes and liverwurst).

Some find Griffith’s films a bit goopy and old-fashioned; I’m a fan of his work for the most part—even though I acknowledge that his later films were a little out of step with the fare being offered up by his contemporaries.  Wonderful concludes with an exciting climactic sequence in which Paul and Inga, having harvested Paul’s garden, are desperately trying to make their way home to the family’s tenement…and are menaced by a gang who thinks the couple are “food profiteers.”  In Richard Schickel’s D.W. Griffith: An American Life, the famed film critic wryly observes “it’s a relief . . . to see a Griffith heroine assaulted not for her virtue but for a hoard of potatoes.”  Griffith could have ended the film on this note (Inga explains to a despondent Paul that they at least have each other—“Isn’t Life Wonderful?”) but I guess he had to tack on a happy ending that I honestly thought weakened the film. 

I won’t mince words—that “isn’t life wonderful?” mantra was starting to sound like sarcasm after a while.  (“We’re faced with crippling poverty and hunger…and the rampant crime that results—isn’t life wonderful?”)  And though the movie eventually gets to where it’s going, it kind of takes its sweet time about it; the first hour of this film went by so slowly I thought I was going to have to get out and push.  It’s not great Griffith but good D.W.—benefiting from realistic locations (Griffith shot extensively in Germany and Austria), and a prescient look at the conditions that would eventually result in the German people promoting a paperhanger with a little moustache obtain the untry'g about that last part.)tache obtain the highesst  seeing hour of this film went so slow I thought I was going to have thighest office in the land—Charlie Chaplin.  (Okay, I’m kidding about that last part.)