The Show Must Go On: 42nd Street (1933)

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When sound came to cinema, the musical came along with it. The tremendous box office returns of The Jazz Singer (1927) had producers reeling, and the market was soon flooded with song and dance. But the Depression-era audiences began tuning them out,  preferring the patter of William Powell to the tapping of another chorine. By 1931 the studios had slashed musicals from their slates and were brainstorming what went wrong. In the May 1931 issue of the Motion Picture Herald, Paramount’s Jesse Lasky was optimistic about the future of the genre:

A gradual but inevitable return of music to the screen is predicted by Lasky. He believes the future will bring a sprinkling of operettas, a reasonable number of musical comedies, dramatic pictures with backgrounds of symphony orchestras. Citing the public’s attitude toward musical comedies, he contends that picture audiences were given something before they were prepared for it. “There is merely a need of a little more skillful technique and a better understanding on the part of the public”, explained Lasky. “The public was not prepared for the license of the musical comedy. For years we had trained the public to realism. The stage naturally had a dramatic license which was impossible in pictures. Audiences could not get used to music coming from nowhere on the screen. Nevertheless, musical comedies will come back and the public will become accustomed to that form of entertainment. In the next two or three years they will have forgotten that there ever was any question about musical comedies.”

In 1933 all questions were dropped after the massive success of WB’s 42nd Street, a snappy, streetwise backstage musical that introduced the world to the symmetrical spectacles of Busby Berkeley’s dance choreography. Now out on a sparkling Blu-ray from the Warner Archive, it’s clearer than ever why this was the film that brought the musical back into the spotlight.

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Horseplay: Black Midnight (1949)

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In June of 1949, Roddy McDowall was twenty years old, and it appeared his acting career was winding down. He had been in the business for over a decade, having first appeared on screen at the age of nine in the British production Murder in the Family (1938). At twelve he signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox, and in 1941 appeared in both Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt and John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. The studio saw money in pairing the cute kid with animals, from the horse in My Friend Flicka to the collie in Lassie Come Home. Fox dropped him from their contract in 1945, as adolescence started dimming that innocent young boy glow. McDowall recalled that, “My agent told me I would never work again, because I’d grown up.” In this uncertain period, he took on parts at independent Poverty Row studios, including a part in Orson Welles’ Macbeth, for Republic Pictures, and a few “grown up” animal films for Monogram. One of these was Black Midnight (1949), directed by Oscar (not yet “Budd”) Boetticher. Released on DVD by Warner Archive, it’s a 66 minute programmer that pairs McDowall with an unruly black stallion that he befriends, tames, and defends against a murder charge. Filmed in the windy mountains of Lone Pine California, it emphasizes McDowall’s open, easy charm, and his awkward, spindly body. Almost every sequence ends in a pratfall  – into a creek, party punch, and a pond. But by the end he’s reached something approaching adulthood, in a trial by fists.

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Johnny Mercer Goes Hollywood: Old Man Rhythm (1935) and To Beat the Band (1935)

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Johnny Mercer is one of the finest lyricists the United States has ever produced, contributing “Moon River”, “Fools Rush In” and “Days of Wine and Roses” to the Great American Songbook. Before he wrote that string of immortal hits, he tried (and folded) his hand at movie stardom, appearing in some sprightly B musicals for RKO starting in 1935. In the early 1930s Johnny Mercer was just another hard working lyricist, with his steadiest paycheck coming from the Paul Whiteman Orchestra as both writer and singer. He had made a name for himself in 1933 with “Lazybones”, written with Hoagy Carmichael, which attracted the attention of the aging but still popular “Pops” Whiteman. The hope was that Mercer could replace the recently departed Bing Crosby in his touring road show. The Savannah-born Mercer was paired with legendary Texas trombonist Jack Teagarden, and they formed a kind of Southern comedy duo, interpreting Fats Waller and “Harlemania” for the white masses. Their routines were enough to get the attention of Hollywood, and RKO lured him West. Mercer had dreams of contributing songs to major musicals, but he had to prove his mettle in the Bs first. The Warner Archive recently released a DVD of Mercer’s first two silver screen forays, the irresistible college comedy Old Man Rhythm (’35) and morbid farce  To Beat the Band (’35). These cheap B pictures are enlivened by the spectacular talents RKO had at its disposal, including  choreographer Hermes Pan, production designer Van Nest Polglase and director of photography Nicholas Musuraca (Cat People, Out of the Past). They are Bs that look like As, and though none of Mercer’s tunes in these films became standards, there were no duds. Billie Holiday agreed, and would record “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo” and “If You Were Mine” from To Beat the Band later in ’35.

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Cagney the Comedian: Boy Meets Girl (1938)

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By the end of 1935 James Cagney was irritated. Under his Warner Brothers contract he was assigned four-to-five movies a year, almost all in the pugilist-gangster mold. Cagney was getting burnt out on the repetition,  just as he was becoming a top ten box office attraction. Seeking a higher salary as well as greater input into his roles, Cagney walked off the studio lot and sued them for back pay. He had become a bad boy on-screen as well as off. He spent his time separated from WB making a couple of small features for the independent Grand National Pictures (Great Guy (’36) and Something to Sing About (’37)). The suit was settled in 1938, and Cagney was back at work at WB. His return film was the inside-Hollywood farce Boy Meets Girl, which was a recent Broadway hit. A rapid-fire parody of tinseltown excesses — it tracks the rise and fall of a literally newborn superstar — it allowed Cagney to stretch his comic chops. He gets to enact all of his mischievous Hollywood fantasies: mouthing off to the unit production chief (Ralph Bellamy), insulting soft-headed actors and inciting extras to riot. Cagney and Pat O’Brien play exaggerated versions of the famously acerbic screenwriting team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur as they sweet talk their way into the heart of a naive mother whose baby becomes an overnight star. This cockeyed comedy is now available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

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In a Frame: Out of the Past (1947)

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Jeff Markham knew Kathie would not arrive, but he sat there and drank anyway. He was resigned to his premonitions, seemingly able to tell the future but powerless to stop it. “I think I’m in a frame…I don’t know. All I can see is the frame. I’m going in there now to look at the picture.” The picture remains obscure to Jeff throughout Out of the Past, though the film image itself is luminous in the new Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. Jeff, played by Robert Mitchum as a slow-motion somnambulist, can see the outline of his fate, but not the details. Director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca previously collaborated on Cat People, and continue their use of low-key lighting to produce dream-like suggestions of violence. All of the deaths in Out of the Past are hidden off-screen, the specifics elided. They simply accrue in the fog of Jeff’s rueful investigation, a case that turns into a series of delaying tactics to stay alive. But he can only pause to smoke so many times before the darkness finally deigns to meet him.

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Saying Good Night to Brian G. Hutton (1935-2014): Night Watch (1973)

taylorhutton1Last week this blog started to resemble the obituary section of my local newspaper and while I hate to continue that trend I couldn’t let Brian G. Hutton’s demise go unmentioned. The New York born director and actor is best remembered today for his work on two popular big-budget WW2 films, WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968) and KELLY’S HEROES (1971) but he also appeared in some memorable films such as John Sturges’ GUN FIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957) and the Elvis vehicle, KING CREOLE (1958) as well as many popular television shows including GUNSMOKE, PERRY MASON, RAWHIDE and ALFRED HITHCOCK PRESENTS. The last film Hutton helmed was the Indiana Jones inspired HIGH ROAD TO CHINA (1983) and soon afterward he retired his directing chair. According to the fine folks at Cinema Retro, Hutton’s self-deprecating sense of humor often led him to criticize his own movies and he didn’t look back all that fondly at the time he spent in Hollywood but many film enthusiasts like myself appreciate the eclectic body of work he left behind.

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Anime Goes West: Magic Boy (1959)

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In the 1950s Hiroshi Okawa wanted to make Toei Company the Disney of Asia. Toei had already become a prolific producer of jidaigeki (period drama) movies, focusing on cheaply made programmers to fill out double and triple bills. They made 104 features in 1954 alone. Toei president Okawa had grander designs, and acquired the animation company Nichido in 1956 in the hopes of competing in the international cartoon market. Toei followed the Disney formula of selecting local fables and fairy tales for adaptation, and adding on a menagerie of cute animals. They also followed the Disney edict of making only one film per year. In a test of the receptivity of the U.S. market, they released their first three films there in 1961, all through different distributors. Their first animated feature was The Tale of the White Serpent (1958), an iteration of the Chinese folktale “Legend of the White Snake”. It was dubbed and released in the U.S. as Panda and the Magic Serpent by the independent Globe Pictures. The first Japanese anime to receive substantial stateside distribution was Magic Boy, completed in Japan in 1959 and released by MGM in ’61. Alakazam the Great (1960) was released stateside by exploitation experts American International Pictures.  The overseas theatrical experiment failed, though Toei’s animation wing would start a pipeline into U.S. television, becoming a staple on Saturday afternoon matinees. Now the Warner Archive has given the U.S. version of Magic Boy its first DVD release, allowing us to examine part of Okawa’s grand plan (it also airs on TCM on Monday, October 6th at 3AM).

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Tall in the Saddle: Clint Walker in Fort Dobbs and Yellowstone Kelly

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In the late 1950s Warner Brothers was using their television properties to create stars on the cheap. One of them was Clint Walker, a former merchant marine and deputy sheriff whose freakish physique and down home sincerity carried the TV Western Cheyenne to high ratings. A March 1958 issue of Screenland checks off his measurements as if he were a prize heifer:  “It’s safe to say he is the biggest man in cowboy movies. He stands six-feet-six, with an 18-inch neck, a 38-inch waist and hips so slim that he can hardly keep his gun belt up.” Signed to a seven year contract by WB in 1955 at $175 a week, Walker began chafing at his rock bottom salary, even when it was bumped to $500 (he walked off the show to protest  in ’59). To placate their brooding star, WB cast him in two big screen Westerns, both directed by Gordon Douglas and scripted by Burt Kennedy (and available on DVD through the Warner Archive): Fort Dobbs (1958) and Yellowstone Kelly (1959) (they would make a third in 1961, Gold of the Seven Saints). They are lonesome works, with Walker playing an outsider plying his trade at the edges of society. In Fort Dobbs he’s a wanted murderer, while in Yellowstone Kelly he’s an individualist scout and trapper mocked by the Army brass for his sympathy towards Native Americans.

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On The Road: Dust Be My Destiny (1939)

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Though it was made in 1939, Dust Be My Destiny has the feel of a Warner Brothers production at the turn of the decade, with its story of a railroad tramp framed for murder. The recession of 1937-’38 had renewed fears of economic collapse, which made the old anxieties new again. John Garfield was getting increasingly frustrated at the roles he was being provided in his WB contract, as he was continually typecast as an ex-con or criminal type who is inevitably redeemed.  The character of Joe Bell in Dust Be My Destiny varies little from the template, which led Garfield to begin refusing roles, and he was punished with suspensions by the studio. The part of Bell was originally intended for James Cagney, and Garfield had become slotted as a kind of shadow Cagney, a pugnacious battler for the working class. Garfield’s politics certainly lined up with the political sentiments, but the material, he felt, was weak. Fellow lefty Robert Rossen adapted the screenplay for Dust Be My Destiny, but studio interference shifted a story intended as an anti-authoritarian Bonnie & Clyde-type tale into a conventional melodramatic romance. The failure of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) gave WB executives pause, causing the material from Jerome Odlum’s novel to be massaged into an unrecognizable shape. Dust Be My Destiny is a curious artifact in John Garfield’s brief, brilliant career, and is now available to view on DVD from the Warner Archive.

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Movin’ On Up: Alice Adams (1935)

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The careers of Katharine Hepburn and George Stevens were forever altered by the flip of a coin. Hepburn and producer Pandro S. Berman had acquired the rights to make a film version of Booth Tarkington’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Alice Adams for RKO. In an oft-repeated, possibly apocryphal story, they had whittled their choice of directors down to two: William Wyler and George Stevens. The coin ended up in Stevens’ favor. The film would snap Hepburn’s box-office losing streak and net her a Best Actress nomination, while the heretofore unknown Stevens would become an A-list director for decades to come. The movie, which Warner Archive has re-issued on DVD, is a bittersweet portrait of a restless Middle American girl, a working class busybody who yearns to become a sophisticated debutante and is mocked for her efforts. The patrician Hepburn is cast against type as an everyday gal, and she delivers a charmingly gawky performance of a girl masking her insecurities with constant patter and twirlingly nervous fingers. Stevens keeps everything grounded in his patient, unassuming 1930s style, capturing Alice’s many humiliations and recoveries in a slow-burning rubato tempo.

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