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Universal on Parade

Here’s a nice little box set from TCM’s Vault Collection, somewhat paradoxically titled “Universal Rarities” since it consists entirely of Paramount films: Edward Cline’s “Million Dollar Legs” (1932), Leo McCarey’s “Belle of the Nineties” (1934), Raoul Walsh’s “Artists and Models” (1937) and Henry Hathaway’s “Souls at Sea” (1937). Nothing all that important, but it’s a happy day for cinephiles when anything surfaces from Universal’s Paramount holdings. A review here, in the New York Times.

The lobby card above, apart from its vampirish overtones, contains a hidden story. Judging from the censorship stamp (“FOR GENERAL EXHIBITION”), it’s an American lobby card that was modified for the Australian release by pasting a sticker reading “specialties by” over Martha Raye’s name — suggesting that her big number, “Public Melody No. 1,” had been cut out of the Australian version, just as it was for some markets in the American south. The reason: she performs in blackface alongside Louis Armstrong and a chorus of African-American dancers, in what some people (including the Variety reviewer) found at the time to be an unacceptable “mixing of the races.” As it happens, the sequence was staged by Vincente Minnelli — his first Hollywood assignment — and it points directly to his first feature, “Cabin in the Sky,” released six years later.

Farewell to Tony Scott, Phyllis Diller and Phyllis Thaxter. It’s been a grim summer.

24 comments to Universal on Parade

  • Leo McCarey and Mae West also enjoyed a bit of “mixing of the races” in BELLE OF THE NINETIES, where the music is played by Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. “Memphis Blues” is my all time favourite Mae West number: “no one can like that piano man”, Mae sings to Duke; their smiles are unforgettable. The “My American Beauty” number is delicious, too, Mae West transforming from a butterfly into the Statue of Liberty. A nice comment on the Production Code Administration.

  • Barry Putterman

    Yes, this set probably does not give us the high points in the careers of any of these directors (with the possible exception of Eddie Cline). However, with performances by The Yacht Club Boys, Jack Benny, Judy Canova (and the Canova Family), Lyda Roberti, Connee Boswell, Martha Raye, Mae West, W.C. Fields, and (as Antti adds) Duke Ellington, this is as fine an introduction to American popular entertainment in the 1930s as you are likely to find in any one package.

    And, as Dave points out, the magnificent Jack Oakie. He might not have been able to project the menace that either Jack Carson or William Bendix could when they were called upon for it; but otherwise he was their equal as a multi-dimensional “type” in American character acting.

  • Barry Putterman

    Oh yes, and Louis Armstrong. But then again, to paraphrase what Jerome Kern said about Irving Berlin, he had no place in American popular entertainment, he WAS American popular entertainment.

  • Really sad news about Tony Scott. I have to admit to not liking many of his films, and thinking of him as a flashy director. But I enjoyed TRUE ROMANCE and recently bought UNSTOPPABLE on Blu-ray for my sons, based on favorable reviews (haven’t yet watched it myself, but now I will have to, because it was his last). I was very disappointed with the first film of his I saw, THE HUNGER, even though it had Deneuve and Bowie – and I liked them both. So I was not interested in seeing TOP GUN when it came and have never seen it either in a cinema or on tv (I’m probably the only one who hasn’t seen it).

    But why I was especially saddened by the news was because a month ago I had had very warm thoughts about Mr. Scott and got intrigued about him as a young man and his later artistic development. I happened to see Ridley Scott’s early short film BOY AND BICYCLE on the internet and Tony Scott is of course the “boy” in it. To me it was and is one of the best things he was involved with. It was so touching to think about the siblings co-operation so many years ago, them both taking their first steps in filmmmaking. It was touching a month ago – and it is touching now.

    I couldn’t find the original source any more, I thought I had it bookmarked, but no. But now I found it elsewhere:

  • David Boxwell

    Oakie was the Mussolini to Chaplin’s Hitler: a priceless incarnation.

  • Alex

    RIP Tony Scott, who in films like TRUE ROMANCE, ENEMY OF THE STATE and UNSTOPPABLE did the adrenalin thriller proud.

  • Alex

    And, oh yeah, DEJA VU.

  • Artists and Models (1937) is a delightful musical comedy. I’ve only had a chance to see it once (on TCM). The new DVD will allow in-depth study.

    It is full of Walsh’s “Geometric Worlds”: places where all the sets, architecture and props embody geometric patterns. This is a major part of Walsh’s cinema.

    The hero’s office is one of Walsh’s geometric environments:
    The Art Deco office is a riot of dynamically balanced lines. In fact, it looks like a late painting by Mondrian. It is mainly rectilinear.
    It also has a circular mirror, which is used for some reflections of the office, making interesting compositions.
    It also has a radio with an octagonal panel.
    It has repeating rectangular picture panels, showing ad campaigns of the agency. These are also examples of the murals in Walsh sets.
    The receptionist in the next room has a spectacular circular desk. Below, it is lined with large glass panels, almost like glass bricks.
    The secretary’s desk in the background has a striking Art Deco lamp with three circular flanges.

    The night club sets are also geometric. The main club has huge rounded urns. There are glowing spherical lamps on the tables. There are some huge, shallow circular steps. In the next set, there is a circular walkway, down which the heroine and the millionaire promenade: followed by three pans and a forward track by the camera. They arrive at a swimming pool, with rounded ladders like those in They Drive by Night.

    The yacht is only in a single scene, but it has a beautiful circular table surrounded by a huge circular seat.

    The puppet show also has a semi-circular proscenium. It is full of circular musical instruments.

    There are other circles in the film:

    Canova and Blue’s number involves a shallow staircase with a banister with spiral metalwork, a Walsh tradition. There is also a balcony with related spiral rails.
    Ben Blue’s rain-making devices include cylinders and a cone.
    Ben Blue keeps them in a case decorated with circular patches.
    The gypsies have circular tambourines.
    A circular mirror is in the heroine’s hotel room.
    The millionaire practices golf in his hotel room, with a spherical ball and cylindrical glass.
    The mother wears a conical headdress to the costume ball. This is an example of the strange hats that run through Walsh.
    The hero’s Romeo costume is full of curving arcs.
    The chandelier over the balcony is formed of concentric circles.

    Also geometric:
    The nested diamond lozenge shapes, that contain the number on the heroine’s hotel door.
    The stars behind the models posing in the final ball.

    The Model

    Walsh films regularly include models: not women modeling clothes, but scale models.
    Artists and Models has one of the best: a huge scale model of an Art Deco skyscraper complex. The skyscraper is incredibly futuristic looking. In fact, it looks like the buildings comic book artist Carmine Infantino would later draw for the planet Rann in Adam Strange (1959-1964). The skyscraper has many circular and rounded features. A spiral light seems to rotate in one of the towers.

  • Alex

    Interesting, Mike — and thanks for the extra tip on A&Ms!

  • Barry Putterman

    Well, as long as nobody (and I DO mean nobody) wants to talk about this week’s films, let me mount the soapbox and throw in a kvetch regarding a completely different subject.

    Last night, through force of habit, I was watching the “ABC Evening News.” It has basically become a later in the day extension of “Good Morning America.” And no better example of that tone could be given than their choice of Jennifer Grey as “Person of the Week” in honor of the 20th anniversary of the release of DIRTY DANCING. Alright, Jennifer Grey seems to be a perfectly nice person, and if ABC wants to do a story about her, I’ll sit and watch it. But it was in Diane Sawyer’s lead-in about DIRTY DANCING where I broke, at the point when for about the 1,000th time I heard a film from the past described as representing “a simpler time.”

    When exactly were times simpler in the U.S.? During The Great Depression? World War II? The Cold War? The turmoil of the 60s? The Watergate crisis? I’m now old enough to have lived through multiple generations of this “simpler time” cant and have concluded that it represents equal parts of condescending pats on the head towards whatever stylistics were in fashion at the time that a film was made and a complete disinterest in facing the fact that it wasn’t the times which were simpler when we were younger, it was the failure of our immature selves to grasp their complexity while they were ongoing.

    Recently, I was looking at the real time coverage by all three networks of the day of the John F. Kennedy assassination. I found it fascinating for many reasons. Not the least being that I remember watching this coverage on the day it was happening, how bored I was at the slowness of the story’s development, and how disappointed I was that no football games would be on TV over the weekend. Ah, simpler times. However, I don’t think that my parents were finding the situation to be all that simple.

  • When someone says “simpler times,” don’t they usually mean, “When I was a child”?

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘for about the 1,000th time I heard a film from the past described as representing “a simpler time.”’

    In Japan there is nostalgia industry for ‘simpler time’, today referring to 1950s. But actual movie from 1950s is not showing simpler time, only movie made from today is showing 1950s as simpler time (in Japan usually TV show and not movie.)

  • Barry Putterman

    A good example of what Dave and Junko are talking about would be to compare GREASE with something like REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. For me, an even better example than GREASE would be HAIRSPRAY. I was there when the actual events fictionalized in HAIRSPRAY happened, and they weren’t quite the absurdist, camp jokes that John Waters trivializes them to be.

  • David Cohen

    To me an example of “simpler times” could be an era when network newscasts offered news, rather than 20th-anniversary celebrations of “Dirty Dancing.” …

    Seriously, I think Dave has hit the nail on the head. And related to the notion of a “simpler time” is the general notion that the singers/bands and/or movies and/or pro athletes and/or (other favored things) that one grew up with are, were and always will be the best that ever was. This seems particularly prevalent when it comes to Baby Boomers and their music.

  • Barry Putterman

    David, I am assuming that you are of an age whereby you missed the general line of assault on rock and roll that boomers heard from their elders. Which, for me, was best put in Bob & Ray’s bit about the retiring baseball player ranting about the “young punks” who are taking over the game. “Now they’ve got these little radios. These little radios in the clubhouse. PLAYING A BUNCH OF NOISE! Now, whatever happened to the songs that Kate Smith and Pat Boone used to sing? Those guys played real songs!”

    Fortunately for me, my devotion to swing era music allowed me to get a dispensation from that portion of my father’s version of this story. And I only had to hear the part about how much better radio was than television because you had to use your imagination.

  • David Cohen

    I am 49 and grew up with parents who favored Broadway show music and big band, so I did hear some of that backlash. But that was nothing compared hearing some of my peers (and near-peers) arguing that the music of the 1960s was the pinnacle of musical culture, destroying all that came before or after (essentially the argument Kevin Kline makes to Jeff Goldblum in THE BIG CHILL). … I have nothing against “classic rock” and do enjoy much of it, but I would never argue that the music of, say, the Jefferson Airplane or The Doors is inherently better than the current output of the Hold Steady or Grace Potter & The Nocturnals simply because it was recorded in the holy 1960s.

  • As a classical fan, feel the best 1960’s music is “A Sermon, a Narrative, and a Prayer” (1961) by Igor Stravinsky!

    But will endorse one childhood nostalgia. Phyllis Diller was my favorite comedian as a kid. She was so funny. (Her refrigerator was so full of smudges the FBI used it for fingerprint training…)
    Even loyally watched her series THE PRUITTS OF SOUTHAMPTON.
    I have still not caught up with her film version of THE ADDING MACHINE by Elmer Rice.

    Jack Oakie is also a favorite.
    SUPER-SLEUTH (Benjamin Stoloff, 1937) gives a chance to see Jack Oakie front and center, as the film’s star. He was also good in YOUNG PEOPLE (Allan Dwan).

  • Jonah

    I remember coming out of a ca. 2000 screening of BONJOUR TRISTESSE–a deeply perverse, deeply sad film–only to overhear one middle-aged dude say to another, “Times were sure simpler back then, weren’t they?” The other dude nodded approvingly.

    If someone can explain this to me, I’ll be very grateful.

  • Puya Yazdi

    Dave K,

    as an aside, let me say that i loved your sight and sound list. Havent seen you really discuss the poll or the list in general, but definitely loved your mis en scene heavy list. that being said, when it comes to von sternberg, and i might be in the giant minority in this blog, but i prefer talking von stroheim as he seemed to have taken his mis en scene up a peg or two just to combat the dialog and emphasis on story lines in general with the coming of sound.

  • Raoul Walsh makes a good test case for opposite ideas about the cinema.

    Many cinephiles today subscribe to two interlocking ideas.
    1) Noel Burch claimed that a few great directors had their own “systems of filmmaking”. Lang, Dreyer, Ozu, Bresson and maybe 20 others made films using individual approaches and techniques. Everyone else made films according to industry standard methods.

    In other words, a Raoul Walsh film is essentially the same as one by Phil Karlson, George Seaton, Allan Dwan, Arthur Lubin and hundreds of other Hollywood professionals. Walsh might add a little more zip and zest than George Seaton, that’s all.

    2) Thomas Schantz claims Hollywood films are mainly made by the “genius of the system”. This too means that a Walsh film is made in essentially the same way as a Dwan or Charles Vidor.

    But what if the above ideas are NOT true?
    All cinephiles agree that Dreyer and Ozu have highly individualized approaches to making cinema.
    But what if Raoul Walsh also has an individual “system of filmmaking”? One just as non-standard and individual as Bresson or Ozu?
    And what if Joseph H. Lewis, Allan Dwan, Vincente Minnelli and many others also have utterly individualized approaches?

    In my Walsh web-book, nearly 200 subjects, techniques and images are documented that run through Walsh films. These are Exhibit A, evidence that Walsh does indeed have an individualized approach, on everything from visual style to iconography to story structure. See:

    Anyone of high school age or above can compare this list with Walsh films. And start “seeing” Walsh’s individuality.

    Much writing today about classical Hollywood is so condescending.
    People regard it as standard “product”, sometimes “entertaining”, sometimes not.
    But not as individual art.
    And not as complex.

    But the documented reality is that Walsh’s films are art: individual, complex, with their own techniques and visual style.

  • Puya Yazdi

    Dont know how to edit my post above but I obviously meant von sternberg not von stroheim.

  • Alex

    Mike Grost,

    Not having one’s “own ‘systems of film making’” like ” Lang, Dreyer, Ozu, Bresson and maybe 20 others made films using individual approaches and techniques” does not mean using an utterly deterministic “industry standard methods.” There are great symphonies and string quartets within the limits of the forms devised by Haydn (even as narrowly practised before Beethoven’s “romantic” innovations) and great orchestral performances from scores performed quite faithfully –within the limits by those scores. To shift frame from Noel Burch’s to a more systematically developed Bordwellian one, there are great variations in the quality of work done within the limits of that mode of cinema that Bordwell calls the Classical Hollywood Cinema. (Of course Walsh IS less original than Dreyer, Ozu, and Bresson, but what else is new. To make sense of what Schatz meant by his “claims” for the strong influence of the “genius of the system” on Hollywood films is to ponder the degree of influence.)

    Personally, I see no notable tension between a view of Walsh’s art good enough of his placement by Sarris within the “Far Side of Paradise” and seeing Walsh as a practitioner of the “Classical Hollywood Cinema” enormously enabled as well as constrained by genius of the Hollywood system (its narrative more, its stable of script writers, main and bit players and technicians, etc.)

    Of course one can make believe that Walsh created his mode of film de novo like a Hadyn (kinda) created his musical forms, but to by that silly would be to discredit what one can gain from treating Walsh as that quite useful fiction called an “auteur.”

    Whether Abby Berlin can be said to have made an notable contribition to the BLONDIE series not fully accounted fro by the genius of the Columbia branch of the Hollywood system, I cannpot say –little though I wish to dismiss the artistic abilities of Frank R. Strayer or Edward Bernds.

  • Peter Henne

    Barry, On a related subject, I am getting annoyed at the pop science tidbit of wisdom that we are all “wired” to most like the music we grew up with. (Since music is used in films, and since the argument about forming preferences might be extended to art forms including film, I hope the point I’ll make will slip by as relevant here.) As though there were no place for detachment and reevaluating our aesthetic principles as we grow older. I’m a year older than David Cohen. I loathed every single shred of contemporary popular music that I heard growing up. I couldn’t wait for someone to turn off a radio. I distrusted most of the so-called alternative rock, as well. Some of the alternative I let in at that age, I later found an embarrassment (surprise, surprise, aging means maturing and sharper-cutting critical judgment get dragged along). The two area classical stations gave my ears something difficult to mull over, and I liked that. But I’ve made some interruptions along the way (against the “wired while you’re still young” theory, how many people DON’T experience some suspensions in focus and changes of course?). Selections from ’60s “crit rock” got added. Avant-garde ’60s and ’70s jazz, which I started discovering around a decade later, made at least an equal impact to the classical and clump of rock I kept.

    The “wiring” idea seems to claim an awful lot that is complicated, but really it is a conveniently vague notion, which also falls back on insupportable claims for rigid genres. It is one thing to be fond of music you heard from the time you grew up in, another to like it and still another to prefer it. There is a distinction between the music produced in your youth, and the music to which you listened, and the latter was probably mixed up a great deal, you might remember a good chunk of it but might not recall more than a fraction of what you heard if asked on the spot, and in short is hard to scientifically test because the content is so particularized to you and in the netherworld of distant memory. You might state the music of your youth is what you’ll always love most-after all, that’s a handy, to-the-point and humble way of summarizing your taste-but it might not be true in fact. There is also the matter of amount of available choice as you get older, which hasn’t been constant across generations, and the matter of cultural inducements to switch to whatever is current.

  • Barry Putterman

    Peter, I think that this is a many sided and fascinating issue. I would be leery of anybody wrapping themselves in “scientific proof’ regarding this, or most any other philosophic or aesthetic quandry. My experience has been that actual scientists are acutely and humbly aware of the enormous amount that they don’t yet understand on any given point and will tell you that whatever principles or theories they are working within are strictly provisional and staggeringly incomplete. It is generally people who work outside of science who tend to grab these ideas and ride them as ideological hobby horses.

    Personally, I think that all of the points that you make here are valid, and worthy of further elaboration and modification. And I expect that there will be numerous opportunities to do just that as we go along.

    In fact, my immediate reaction was that this new week’s films, BYE BYE BIRDIE and HIGH TIME, touched on these very things in very interesting ways, and I was figuring to comment on them when new thread gets postered.