Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"Scandal Sheet," or Greed All About It

From out of the blue of the western sky comes ... Motion Pictures Told Through Still Pictures with Goofy Captions! Today's entry: the 1952 film ... 

"Scandal Sheet" takes place in a mythical world
where people still read newspapers.
Rush Limbaugh plays Mark Chapman, hard-driving
newspaper editor.

Chapman has made the New York Express a circulation
juggernaut by emphasizing misleading headlines ...

... sensational stories ...

... and a comics page with "Marmaduke." People just
love that doggone pooch!

The stockholders don't like Chapman's sleazy approach,
but they very much like their big dividend checks. Chapman's
goal is to reach 750,000 -- readers, not scowls.

The newspaper's star reporters are Donna Reed,
biding her time until a sitcom comes along ...

... and John Derek, biding his time until
he marries someone named Bo.

At a lonely hearts dance sponsored by the paper,
Chapman runs across the wife he abandoned years ago.



They begin discussing old times.

But Chapman's wife's head gets discussed right into
an iron pipe, and she is killed.

At least it makes for a nice story.

Derek and his photographer sidekick, Col. Potter
from "M*A*S*H," set out to solve the case.

You'd sweat, too, if you felt the long arm of justice reaching
right up into the bowels of your guilty conscience.

In the end, the reporters get their man ...

... and the circulation of the Express
finally reaches 750,000 because of the story ...

... and the addition of "The Lockhorns" to
the comics page.









Friday, February 21, 2014

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "The Hollywood Revue of 1929"

"The Hollywood Revue of 1929," MGM's entry in the look-at-us-we're-talking sweepstakes, is a lot like Warner Bros.' "The Show of Shows," released later that year. It's a big-budget hodgepodge of skits and songs featuring almost every performer on the lot (a select few were exempt -- Al Jolson isn't in "The Show of Shows" and Greta Garbo isn't in "Hollywood Revue").

The budget is so big, the chorus ends up passing the hat.
Both films were designed to introduce audiences to the brave new world of talkie films -- the ironic thing is that early talkies, because of cumbersome cameras and sound recording equipment, were much less "free" than silent films. The setting that both studios use to showcase sound is very static -- a clearly defined stage, proscenium arch and all. ("Broadway Revue" even has a pit orchestra.)

Joan Crawford warms up for her big dance number. 
Still, this was a chance to see your favorite actors and actresses talk, dance and sing. MGM used to brag about having "more stars than there are in heaven," and at least a galaxy or two is accounted for here -- Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Marie Dressler, Bessie Love, Anita Page, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and many others.

Like "The Show of Shows," "Hollywood Revue" prides itself on being very up to date, with sketches that poke fun at quaint Victorian songs and melodramas. The opening number of "Hollywood Revue" and at least part of the proceedings take place in the context of a much more modern setting -- a, um, minstrel show.

The emcees here are Conrad Nagel and Jack Benny. Benny was a headliner in vaudeville by this point, but this is early in his career and he's just beginning to perfect the mannerisms and low-key style that he would utilize so successfully in radio and television. The emcee of "The Show of Shows" is Frank Fay, whose stage persona Benny freely admitted to appropriating, and in comparing the two, Fay comes off as more effective (at least to me). Here's Benny in a sketch with William Haines:



Here, by comparison, is Frank Fay in "The Show of Shows":



The other emcee, Conrad Nagel, is pleasing and polished -- like almost everybody else he sings a number, a song that sends lyrics of love right up into Anita Page's nostrils.

The two performers who are featured most prominently in "Hollywood Revue," however, are singers -- Charles King and Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards. King was the male lead in MGM's other big film of 1929, "The Broadway Melody," and gets far more attention here that he merits. (He sings the song "Your Mother and Mine," which is parodied in "The Show of Shows.")

Edwards, on the other hand, was never a big star, but he was a reliable second banana in several MGM films of the early 1930s. (And he was the voice of Jiminy Cricket in "Pinocchio.") His singing style is simple and appealing, and here he accompanies himself on the uke:


That is some art right there.

Comedy bits are offered by Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Marie Dressler, but they are minor stuff. There are also quite a few ensemble numbers with elaborate sets and costumes.

And then, toward the end, there is for me the most wince-able portion of "Hollywood Revue" -- a bit, shot in two-strip Technicolor, with Norma Shearer, John Gilbert and Lionel Barrymore.

You've probably heard of it if you haven't seen it -- Gilbert and Shearer perform the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet," and then director Barrymore tells them that, under studio orders, the dialogue must be updated.

Norma Shearer tries and fails to act like a regular person.
It's one of those ideas that has "cute" written all over it, and not in a good way. It also features what is supposed to be good-natured, natural bantering between the three, and it's truly squirm-worthy.

Soon enough comes the ending, also shot in two-strip Technicolor -- it's the movie's big hit song, "Singin' in the Rain," sung by the entire cast, in rain slickers, as they prepare to -- board Noah's Ark?



SEE Cliff Edwards in a rain hat! SEE Joan Crawford looking around for her camera! SEE Buster Keaton look like he wishes he was somewhere else!

SEE the complete credits for "The Hollywood Revue of 1929"!


Sunday, February 16, 2014

"Freaks," or Short Circus

Everything below this logo is made up.

MGM INTEROFFICE MEMO

January 3, 1932

From: Irving Thalberg, Head of Production

To: Louis B. Mayer

L.B.:

First off, thanks again for the invitation to your Herbert Hoover fundraiser tonight. As appealing as the prospect sounds of seeing the magnetic Mr. Hoover in person, I'm afraid that Norma and I have our regular bridge game with Marie Dressler and Ben Turpin and so we must reluctantly pass.   

Now down to cases -- I understand that you have seen a rough cut of "Freaks" and that you have some concerns. As I have already told you, this is a very unusual film, which, granted, makes it a risky proposition for MGM. On the other hand, overall box office business is good -- so good that the grapevine reports you are getting ready to buy Mexico, which is something I'm sure Mr. Hoover can help you with. Given that, I think we can find room to release a movie that takes an artistic risk.

Now, to address your points one by one:

1. I understand that you had an encounter with John Barrymore yesterday where he described "Freaks" to you as "a delightful circus movie" just before throwing up on your shoes. I think you should take anything John says with a grain of salt, not to mention grain alcohol. If you believed John's joking description, that may account for your reaction to the movie. You bemoan the lack of animals, clowns and laughing children, but those are beside the point of the plot -- although, to make you happier, we will add a scene of Wallace Ford in a clown outfit getting hit on the head with a prop hammer by Leila Hyams.

2. You write that you hate the title of the picture, that "Freaks" is too sensational-sounding. We chose that title because that is the derogatory term given to the circus people by the evil trapeze artist. The title is ironic because the movie shows us that these people are much more than freaks. I cannot accept any of your alternative titles -- "Saw Dust," "Bareback Mountin'," "Bearded Lady for a Day," "Carnivale" or "Sideshow Mob."



3. As you point out, there are several scenes where we see armless sideshow performers who are using their feet to hold a glass of beer. Per your suggestion, we will consider switching beer to milk.









4. I am at a loss to understand your desire for musical numbers in this picture. To bring the story to a halt, as you suggest, so that the Siamese twins can sing "Me and My Shadow" or so the human torso can dance to "Clap Yo Hands" would be disastrous.








5. You express concern about the level of "violence" in the film. What mayhem there is flows naturally from the plot, and the idea of giving the sideshow folk "cuter weapons" is unacceptable.









6. Under no circumstances will I even consider your suggestion that we should replace our male lead, Harry Earles, with Jackie Cooper. I don't care how much Cooper made you cry in "The Champ" -- the character of Hans is not a boy, he is a man who happens to be a midget. Therefore I also cannot consider your other plot suggestion -- that in the end, Hans is adopted.


 



7. I do agree with you that a picture of this nature requires a special publicity push, but the idea of a "Miss Freak of 1932" beauty contest at major theatres is out, as is the "Pinhead the Tail on the Donkey" competition. 

In conclusion, I hope that after an interval of time you will come to appreciate this film as a unique, engrossing look at a subculture -- a group of very human people who band together to protect one of their own (Hans) from the bullying trapeze artist and her brutish lover, the strong man. I'm hearing from people all over the lot that this is one of MGM's most remarkable films, with or without Jackie Cooper, and I feel very strongly that it is ready to go as it is. All the mishegas about this picture is going to fell me at an early age, I swear.

I believe that covers all of your concerns. Give my regards to Mr. Hoover.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"Let's Rock" and the Julius La Rosa Story


The 1958 film "Let's Rock" is undoubtedly the finest film ever to feature someone fired live on the air by Arthur Godfrey.

All right, so that's a very limited category -- this is a very limited movie. It's one of those drive-in quickies with a plot so lightweight that the script was printed on Kleenex. Several times during the movie, things screech to a halt so that the hottest rock group of that day can lip-sync to its latest 45. The sets are roughly the size of someone's basement, and most scenes look like they were shot in one take.

And yet, "Let's Rock" offers something kind of unusual -- a long look at Julius La Rosa.

La Rosa was a popular crooner in the 1950s, with a clear, pleasant voice in the manner of Tony Bennett or Perry Como. He had his own short-lived TV show and appeared on all the big variety shows of the day.

And he was the guy who helped trigger the downfall of Arthur Godfrey. More about that in a minute.

La Rosa is the star of "Let's Rock," playing, basically, himself. He's a popular singer named Tommy Adano whose gold records are all ballads. But 1958 is not a ballad age -- it is the age of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. Tommy is reminded of it every time he turns on the TV!

"Rock and roll is here to stay," says Tommy's agent Charlie (Conrad Janis). "Do I have to spell it out for you?"

"No, I know how to spell it," Tommy replies. "L-O-U-S-Y."

When Tommy appears on a TV variety show and is overshadowed by Paul Anka (as himself, lip-syncing his latest hit), his dilemma is vividly demonstrated. Screaming teenagers swamp Anka at the stage door while Tommy and his manager stand alone. Until:



Tommy is approached by Kathy Abbott (Phyllis Newman), a fan, but also a songwriter. She has written the song that is on the flipside of Tommy's latest flop. Tommy thinks she is a "kook," but there's a spark there.

Meanwhile, Tommy mopes around, watching from the wings while upstarts like Danny and the Juniors (singing their hit "At the Hop") eat his lunch. The sorrowful look on Tommy's face seems pretty realistic -- this is the same problem that La Rosa was facing at this point in his career.

Tommy's groupie doesn't seem unbalanced at all!
Tommy asks Kathy to help cheer him up, but she can't get off work. So he goes home with a rather offbeat groupie, but he escapes from her clutches before any harm is done. He and Kathy reunite, and she convinces him to try a rock-and-roll song called "Crazy, Crazy Party." All is well.

"Let's Rock" features plenty of artifacts from the late 1950s, including performances by Anka, Della Reese and Roy Hamilton. It even gives us Wink Martindale as himself! (This was from his deejay days, before he became the host of the 1970s game show "Gambit.")

This was also one of Newman's few movie roles -- she was much better known on Broadway (she would win a Tony Award in 1963) and on TV, where she was a semi-regular on New York-based game shows like "To Tell the Truth" and "What's My Line?" She was married to composer-screenwriter Adolph Green (of Comden and Green) from 1960 until his death in 2002.    

And the movie also features a bit of New York City location shooting, including a scene at Central Park where Newman and La Rosa are clearly freezing to death. It's kind of sweet, and their scenes together have a nice, ad-libbed quality -- the movie doesn't make a big deal about it, but Kathy is smarter than Tommy. Still, "Let's Rock" is decidedly in a minor key.

Now to La Rosa's story -- and it's a story that, at first, prominently features Arthur Godfrey.

He's not well known today, but from the late 1940s until about 1954, Godfrey was HUGE. No entertainment figure was more fawned over by the media, and no performer was more visible on radio and TV – Godfrey hosted a daily morning show on CBS, a Monday night talent scouts show, a Wednesday evening variety show and, for a brief period in 1950, nightly ukulele lessons. (Godfrey’s love of the uke spawned a boomlet of amateur ukulele-rs at that time.) Advertisers loved Godfrey, who pitched their products with a unique mix of irreverence and credibility. And because advertisers loved Godfrey, CBS loved Godfrey, too – he was the network’s biggest moneymaker for years.

Godfrey had a unique style on the air -- he was always himself, for better or worse. He had a reputation for being irreverent and even a little spicy (leading to some FCC warnings) long before Howard Stern. And because he was on the air daily, watching or listening to Godfrey could be a little like living with an alcoholic parent – you were always on the lookout for his “moods.” The performers who worked with Godfrey – he always referred to them as “the little Godfreys” rather than by their names – must have felt the same apprehension. His shows were part variety, part psychodrama – who was Godfrey peeved at (or proud of) today?

La Rosa was one of the little Godfreys. He joined the show in 1951 after being discharged from the service. Virtually all of the little Godfreys were Godfrey discoveries, and he ruled their lives – and careers – like a benevolent dictator. They became stars through their exposure with Godfrey, but he also kept them humble by downplaying their talent and discouraging them from appearing on other shows.

La Rosa was Godfrey's most popular discovery, and after a few years he was appearing on the covers of fan magazines and becoming a teen heartthrob. He was also starting to make hit records -- without Godfrey's blessing.

In the summer of 1953, Godfrey took some time off from his shows to have a hip operation that was covered by the press in roughly the same detail as D-Day. When he returned in the fall, Godfrey was at the peak of his popularity, and reportedly irritated at La Rosa.

Everything hit the fan on October 19, 1953. Toward the close of that day’s morning show on CBS radio, La Rosa stepped forward on Godfrey’s command to sing a song. But first Godfrey had a few things to day. He reminisced about how he had given La Rosa his start, and how grateful La Rosa had been. Then he reminded La Rosa that there were no stars on his show. Then La Rosa sang “We’ll Take Manhattan.” And in the final moments of the show, as the closing theme played, Godfrey said, “That was Julie’s swan song with us. He now goes out on his own.”

Pandemonium erupted. And after the show, Godfrey made a comment that would haunt him for the rest of his life – that La Rosa had been fired because he “lacked humility.” Godfrey could be a great communicator, but he apparently was without his sense of irony that day.

Godfrey’s slide downhill following the La Rosa departure wasn’t immediate, but it was steady, especially in the wake of more firings of the little Godfreys and more reports of Godfrey's bad behavior. Then came formidable competition in the form of Walt Disney – “Disneyland” premiered opposite “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends” in the fall of 1954 and the series never recovered. Soon Godfrey was off TV altogether.

Godfrey died in 1983, but not before attempting a rapprochement with La Rosa. La Rosa himself is still alive and still singing. Here's a segment from the A&E "Biography" series about the firing:



Thursday, February 6, 2014

The "Public Enemy" Guide to Life

I think we can all agree that some movies offer great life lessons that we can tuck into our memory banks and carry with us, like loose change in our pockets or maybe lint, as we traverse through this unpredictable and awesome thing called life. I have found, for example, that the 1931 film "The Public Enemy" is stuffed like crazy with wisdom, and I can say without fear of contradiction that everything I need to know I learned from ... well, see for yourself.

Get regular exercise. 

No spanking unless its consensual.


Be open to surprises.



Be respectful.


Encourage your loved ones to make healthy food choices.


Cultivate an appreciation for music.


Again -- no spanking unless it's consensual. 


Be kind to your mother.


And finally -- always celebrate Halloween.



Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Maude Eburne Film Festival: "The Vampire Bat" and "Lonely Wives"

"I beg your pardon, young man?"
Of all the actors and actresses who appeared in 1930s movies, Maude Eburne (1875-1960) was certainly one of them.

She was born in Ontario, Canada, and appeared in plays there before making her Broadway debut in 1913. The next year she made a name for herself as "Coddles" in a hit farce called "A Pair of Sixes," and appeared in plays until at least 1930.

Eburne appeared in over 100 movies, including the 1918 film version of "A Pair of Sixes." But her Hollywood career really didn't begin in earnest until 1930, when she appeared in "The Bat Whispers."

Her movie roles were usually as busybodies, kind as well as malicious. One nice little change of pace was her brief but vivid appearance in the 1933 pre-code prison film "Ladies They Talk About," wherein Barbara Stanwyck causes a stir while in stir. In this cheerfully cynical film, Eburne plays "Aunt Maggie," a former madame whose seniority in the jug is symbolized by the fact that she has a reserved rocking chair in the prison lounge. Stanwyck is introduced to her by Lillian Roth, as another inmate:




The 1933 film "The Vampire Bat" is a Grade-Z horror movie with a surprisingly big-name cast -- Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and Melvyn Douglas. Eburne is fourth-billed, as Wray's Aunt Gussie. Her main job is to provide comic relief while everyone else runs around the village of Kleinschloss trying to figure out who's killing villagers by the dozen. All of them have puncture wounds in the neck and have been emptied of blood, sucked out through what one doctor calls the "jew-gu-lahr" vein.

Atwill is a doctor who might or might not be behind the murders; Wray is his devoted assistant and Douglas is the local flatfoot. Eburne's job is to spout medical malapropisms and scream at opportune moments -- she also faints at least twice, once when she meets demented villager Herman (Dwight Frye, who else?), who carries a bat in his pocket a la Lennie in "Of Mice and Men":



Eburne shows up again at the end. The murders have been solved, but the joke's on Gussie -- Dr. Atwill has given her a dose of Epsom salts for that get up and go feeling:




"The End"! Ha! Ha!

The 1931 film "Lonely Wives," on the other hand, is no laughing matter, even though it's supposed to be a comedy. The leading man, alas, is Edward Everett Horton -- in a dual role, yet.

Now don't get me wrong -- like cilantro, Horton is perfect in smaller doses, adding spice to everything from Lubitsch films to "Fractured Fairy Tales" on "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle." But in a lead role, much less a romantic lead, that's just simply too much Edward.

Horton plays Richard Smith, a well-known attorney and ladies' man. As his butler says, "Any pretty woman can twist him around her little finger -- and the prettier they are, the more twisted he gets."

Eburne is Richard's mother-in-law, who looks askance at his slinky new secretary (Patsy Ruth Miller):  



Having mother-in-law around makes it hard for Richard to slip out for his assignations, but help comes in the form of The Great Zero (also Horton), a Vaudeville impersonator who disguises himself as Richard. All goes well until mother-in-law surprises Richard (really Zero) with his wife, who has returned early from a trip. And she's feeling very amorous. (The wife, not Eburne.)

"Lonely Wives" starts with an agreeable amount of wit and spice, but after Richard comes home and he and Zero get mistaken for each other about 75 times, things get tiresome.

As for Eburne, she chugged on through the 1930s and into the 1940s. She had the honor of playing Frank McHugh's mother in "Here Comes the Navy" and she played a supporting role in "Ruggles of Red Gap." In the late 1930s she played Mrs. Hastings the housekeeper in a series of "Dr. Christian" movies, with Jean Hersholt in his well-known radio role. (Most of them are available, in full, on YouTube.) Her final film credit was 1951's "Belle Le Grand," a western made at Republic Studios with Vera Hruba Ralston. By then Eburne was in her mid-70s.