Thursday, July 9, 2020

Books: The Real Tinsel

The 2020 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

I have my friend Bibi to thank for the books in this year’s blogathon. She works in a library, and over a year ago, she sent me a huge package of film books her library had planned to discard. Some of them pertained to modern cinema but most were about Old Hollywood and were written in the 50s, 60s and 70s...

...such as this first one. The Real Tinsel is an oral history of the early days of Hollywood, with terrific photographs, compiled by Bernard Rosenberg & Harry Silverstein in 1970. Many of the industry types they spoke to dated their film careers back to the 1910s and 20s—so you can imagine how valuable are the stories they tell.

Some interviewees should be recognizable to the average cinephile with a working knowledge of Hollywood history: Adolph Zukor, Dore Schary, Edward Everett Horton, Fritz Lang, Max Steiner. Others are less so, but equally important: producer Walter Wanger, actresses Mae Marsh and Blanche Sweet, stuntman Gil Perkins, cameraman Hal Mohr, writer Anita Loos.

They’re all given free reign to discuss not only their careers, but their lives, many of which began in the 19th century. Some common denominators include: working-class jobs in their youth, roots in the theater, wartime reminiscences, witnessing the evolution of the medium and learning how it works, the shift from New York to Hollywood, salaries, labor disputes, the coming of sound to motion pictures, industry anecdotes, etc.

A photo from Tinsel: Mae Marsh
In The Cinderella Man
At the time of publication, some were happily retired; others were still active in the industry. All spoke candidly about their ups and downs in Hollywood at a languid, rambling pace, and because they’re from a time period just barely within living memory even in 2020, their language reflects that. It’s a tad more formal, more erudite, and a far cry from modern diction, influenced by the internet and greater contact with other countries.

That said, I wonder how accessible this book was to the cinephiles of the late 60s/early 70s. Today I can (and often did) go to IMDB and look up completely unfamiliar names like Joe Rock, Dagmar Godowsky, or Billy Bletcher. Rosenberg & Silverstein don’t really provide much in the way of context as to who these people are or the people and places they describe. 

In Tinsel, Rod LaRocque talks
about his marriage to
Vilma Banky.
Tinsel would have benefited greatly with some annotation. The interviewees were in their sixties, seventies and up—way up. Memories were bound to have been faulty in places, not to mention selective. The book comes across as being for the cinephile, the insider who subscribes to THR and Variety, or teaches at film school, but I get the feeling it was meant more for the casual movie fan, and if so, a little help as to who these people were wouldn’t have hurt. It’s not like Crawford and Fonda and Bacall are in this book.

Still, Tinsel is a valuable treasure trove of Hollywood stories in the words of the people who helped build the industry.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The first movies out the theatrical gate: what to expect?

...Exhibitors’ intentions will still need to clear the authorities in key places like New York City, Los Angeles County, and the city of San Francisco. Theater sources claim they expect to be allowed to operate by July 10, but the really meaningful date is July 24 — and in any event, those major-city locations typically represent less than 10 percent of the total national business.
So this was expected to be the month movie theaters would reopen nationwide after the quarantine forced a temporary shutdown—and it may still happen. No matter when it does, the fact is it has to happen; too much money is at stake for the studios, the filmmakers, the distributors and the theaters themselves to remain out of business for much longer, and while professional sports like the NBA and the NHL tentatively plan to restart without audiences, Hollywood still needs the theaters and the patrons that come with them.

Last month, AMC announced its reopening plan, which includes social distancing protocols and an aggressive cleaning strategy called Safe & Clean:
...Seat capacity restrictions, social distancing efforts, commitments to health, new intensified cleaning protocols, contactless ticketing and expanded mobile ordering of food & beverages are all vital elements of AMC Safe & Clean. Importantly, too, we also have invested millions and millions of dollars in high tech solutions to sanitation, disinfection and cleanliness, such as the ordering of electrostatic sprayers, HEPA filter vacuum cleaners and MERV 13 air ventilation filters wherever we can. 
After some controversy on whether or not masks would be mandatory for patrons, AMC decided to insist on requiring masks. Other chains are following suit.

Here in NYC, the second phase of our reopening plan is in effect, although movie theaters are not officially included in this phase, and won’t be for awhile. I don’t need to explain to you how vital the New York market is. This is all uncharted territory, so things could change even more than they already have... but for now, let’s look at some of what we’ll see when we do come back to the theaters. Links to the trailers are in the titles.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Harlem Rides the Range

Harlem Rides the Range
YouTube viewing

I really wanted to write about a black cowboy movie but thought I’d have to settle for one from the 70s or 80s. Then I came across this discovery: Herb Jeffries (AKA Herbert Jeffrey) was a singing cowboy from the 30s who starred in westerns with all-black casts.

He was very light-skinned (his mom was white) but identified as black. He started out as a singer in Detroit and moved to Chicago. In 1931 he joined Earl Hines’ band for a few years and then moved to LA in 1934. In time he became part of Duke Ellington’s band and lowered his vocal range to sound more like Bing Crosby.

While touring in the South with Hines, Jeffries experienced racism for the first time; the band could only play in tobacco warehouses and black-only theaters. When he saw black kids watching westerns, he decided they should have a black cowboy hero of their own.

He hooked up with producer Jed Buell, raised some money and wrote songs for the film. Jeffries had learned about horse riding on his grandfather’s farm, so he cast himself in the lead and used makeup to darken his skin.

Harlem on the Prairie was shot in five days in 1937 and though the critical reaction was mixed, it got a write-up in Time. “The Bronze Buckaroo” went on to make three more westerns, including the one I watched, Harlem Rides the Range, from 1939. I’m sorry to say it’s not very good; the acting is amateurish, the editing uninspired and there are only two songs in the hour-long movie.

That said, Jeffries was a good singer and the fact that his movies got made at all is an accomplishment in itself worth noting. He appeared in other non-western movies and television later in life, including an episode of The Virginian. A documentary short, A Colored Life, was made about him in 2008.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Gene Autry vs. Roy Rogers

Singing cowboys (and cowgirls) have been around almost as long as sound in motion pictures. I can’t say I have much experience with them. I remember some of the country records my father listened to by self-styled cowboys—Marty Robbins, Freddy Fender, Tex Ritter—but as a kid, I never associated singing cowboys with the movies. I suppose my father must have watched singing cowboy movies growing up and then later, as an adult, but I don’t recall seeing any on TV.

If you had asked me back then, I would’ve said Gene Autry was the owner of the California Angels and Roy Rogers was the fast food restaurant. Even when I discovered who they were beyond those roles, I can’t say I cared much; westerns were what my parents watched. Now, many years later, as I re-examine westerns, it occurs to me that my education would be incomplete without a foray into the sub-genre of the western musical, and the two guys who dominated the field like oil rigs on the plains of Texas.

Here’s a top ten list of singing cowboys and cowgirls featuring some names you may not know. Here’s a history of the sub-genre, with a heavy focus on Autry and Rogers. With this post, I’m mostly interested in seeing their movies (and a bit of their TV shows) and seeing which one of them I like better. I realize I’m working from a small test sample, given the breadth of their careers, but I’m guessing their movies followed a formula and rarely strayed from that formula. My small sample will probably be enough.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Maverick Queen

The Maverick Queen
YouTube viewing

This is pure speculation on my part, but I’m guessing Pearl Grey realized from an early age he needed to change his name and become famous for something, so no one would ever have to call him “Pearl” again. Good thing he went with his middle name instead and became the Western writer Zane Grey.

Before Larry McMurtry, before Louis L’amour, there was Zane Grey. His novels and stories redefined the Wild West for a generation of readers, and needless to say, they were translated into numerous films and TV episodes. There is a Zane Grey Museum, in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, the town where he lived after his marriage for a time.

Grey played baseball; he was a pitcher and then an outfielder at the University of Pennsylvania and had a cup of coffee with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1903. For a time, he followed his father in the field of dentistry, but what he really wanted to do was write.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Decision at Sundown

Decision at Sundown
YouTube viewing

Would you follow a man on a mission of revenge?

In the old west, disputes were settled from the barrel of a gun, and wrongs done a man were never forgotten. Sure, it may take years, time that could be better spent thinking about it and realizing it’s probably not worth nursing a vendetta for quite so long and moving on with life instead—settling in a town with a peculiar yet ironically fitting name somewhere, getting a steady job punching cows, marrying an ordinary-looking girl but keeping the town whore’s address in your little black book, having a couple of kids and developing a drinking habit that’ll ensure you die before the age of forty, which was just about the average life expectancy of most people in the old west anyway—but you don’t care! Because a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, or at least what the screenplay tells him to do. Would you devote your life to seeing justice done, even if you may not have all the facts or may not be sure it even is justice?

You’d do it—for Randolph Scott!

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Television: Wagon Train

Gene Roddenberry first pitched Star Trek to NBC in April 1964. The ex-policeman turned television writer-producer had made in-roads into the new medium with scripts for anthology series and briefly had a short-lived military series called The Lieutenant, but longed for the ability to address social issues without contending with conservative network censors.

He knew science fiction was a tough sell though, so when he entered the office of producer Herb Solow, he nervously handed him a piece of paper with his treatment on it and likened his proposed series to something more familiar: a western. Specifically, a western that had been going strong since 1957, on two networks, called Wagon Train.

Spun off from a 1950 John Ford movie, Wagon Master, it lasted eight seasons and 284 episodes on first NBC, then ABC. The original stars, Ward Bond (from the original movie) and Robert Horton, were together for the first four seasons. The show centered around a wagon train, obviously, of 19th-century settlers moving to Oregon, led by Bond. Horton served as advance scout for the train. There were also recurring characters who worked with Bond and protected the settlers. The executive producers were Howard Christie and Richard Lewis.

I never gave much thought to the Trek connection (however loose it is), but I watched it wondering how much WT was like Trek, if at all. My conclusion: not that much, but maybe it’s not that obvious based on only three random episodes?