The Year Was 1939 – May 27th

Robert Preston in 1938
  • Paramount has signed their new discovery Robert Preston to a long term contract and he will make his debut in ‘King of Alcatraz.’ Filming will commence at the end of June. One of their talent scouts had spotted him in a play at the Pasadena Playhouse. [Preston would be in two films for 1938, and three in 1939, including ‘Union Pacific’ and ‘Beau Geste’].
  • Opening today – ‘Crime School’ from WB with Humphrey Bogart and the Dead End Gang. A ‘B’ picture that did ‘A’ business – brought in for only $250,000.
  • Columbia is sending a company to Kanab, Utah to film exteriors for their serial ‘Wild Bill Hickock.’ The cast including Gordon Elliott, Kermit Maynard, Monte Blue, and Carol Wayne will spend 10 days in the area. [Gordon Elliott after this serial going forward would be known as Bill Elliott. He would be hard at work on westerns for Columbia throughout 1939].
  • President Harry Warner of WB announced that a new series of Technicolor featurettes will be made with patriotic themes – such as the Declaration of Independence, Clara Barton, Abe Lincoln, etc. He feels that they are needed to combat the subversive and undemocratic forces at work in the country.
  • RKO has seven films currently shooting at its Gower St lot, and intends to continue to keep seven going at once through the usually quiet summer period. 
  • Ed Sullivan details his time on the ‘If I Were King” set at Paramount, and relates the remarks by Basil Rathbone on how he likes being in this film – “It is the first time in years I haven’t kicked a baby or been killed in Reel 4.” [For this historical film set in France of the 15th Century, an enormous Paris street set was built on 73,000 square feet of the backlot].

ON THE MOVE

  • Darryl F Zanuck left for NY, from which he and Joe Schenck will sail to Europe. [Schenck ends up remaining stateside, intending to go over later].
  • Donald McBride is expected to arrive from NY today at RKO to assume the role of the hotel manager in ‘Room Service,’ a role he fulfilled in the play version.

The Year Was 1938 – May 13th

  • ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ opens – a WB release, directed by Michael Curtiz, with Errol Flynn, Olivia DeHaviland, Basil Rathbone, Alan Hale. Also opening – ‘Vivacious Lady’ from RKO – George Stevens directing with Ginger Rogers and James Stewart.
  • The WB publicity department to promote their Robin Hood film planted nearly 4,000 arrows in the lawns of local residents (Hollywood and LA). Particular attention was paid to the lawns of local newsmen, reviewers and columnists.
  • Jackie Coogan faces off with his Mom and stepfather over the money he claimed was from his earnings as a child star. He claimed his earnings totalled 4 million, his mother counters that it was only 1.5 million, of which only $500,000 remains. They further claim that he had no rights to any of it before he became of age, and in addition had no claim to anything his father had bequeathed after the auto crash that ended his life. Jackie does not accept their answer and vows to press on in court.
  • Director George Stevens is reported to be headed for Mexico to look for a location where an Indian (make that East Indian) village could be built. RKO is budgeting $800,000 to built it. But then again there is concern that Mexican President Cardenas could confiscate the site. [This would be for ‘Gunga Din.’ Stevens ended up going elsewhere].
  • At RKO writers Ben Hecht and Charlie MacArthur have turned in the first draft for ‘Gunga Din.’ They solved the problem of turning a poem into a film by borrowing from their successful play and film ‘The Front Page.’ They transferred the story element in which the newspaper editor is trying to retain the services of his reporter who wants to quit – over to a military setting. In this instance a soldier who wants to return to civilian life has his fellow sargeants plotting to keep him in harness.

Boo Jr #1939The MiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Boo Jr

You got to hand it to Variety for their eye-catching and funny headlines, titles, and phrasing. They christened ‘The Son of Frankenstein” with the moniker – BOO, JR which at once encapsulated and entertained.

In its January 4 edition, it announced:

“Boo, Jr.
Hollywood Jan 1 [1939]

‘Son of Frankenstein’ completed Saturday (31) at Universal, goes into national release Jan
13 with heavier advance bookings than any other U feature.
Cutters kept pace with the shooting schedule to speed up the distribution.”

There is an excellent reason that Universal garnered “heavier advance bookings” than usual. Back in the spring and summer of 1938, when a dearth of product hit the theaters, an enterprising theater manager (Emil Uman at the Regina Theater in Beverly Hills) put together a triple bill of older films for his venue.

The unspooling of “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” and “Son of Kong” caused the cops to be called out to control the crowds. Word spread and soon other theaters were looking to book the reissues. Universal gladly offered their titles “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” as a stand alone double bill (Kong, both original and Son were RKO properties – I’m sure Universal did not want to share the film rentals). And the crowds – and the cops – were repeated – from San Francisco to Boston. Initial short bookings were held over, in some instances, multiple weeks (Philadelphia ran seven).  St Louis packed in over 34,000 people in the first three days.

Such business was a bellwether indication that the horror genre was ready for a new installment. Thus, Universal decided to take the money coming in from the revivals and make a sequel. By October 1938 they were negotiating for talent. Boris Karloff took another turn in the monster role; and Bela Lugosi lurked menacingly as the murderous deranged cripple. Willis Cooper, a writer for radio horror programs and three Mr Moto films at Fox, was tapped for the scripting chores. By the 18th the cameras were turning, but not without a few hiccups. No director was listed for the first day of shooting (a role filled soon after by Rowland V Lee), and a principal actor (Peter Lorre) announced for the title roll dropped out. He was replaced on the 24th by Basil Rathbone.

It was given an ‘A’ picture status – better production values, sets, costumes etc., and shoehorned into the few available soundstages at Universal. (Their ‘B’ lineup, judged to be ahead of schedule for upcoming release, caused others of the same designation to be put on hold, freeing up stage space for the ‘A’s). Another ‘A’ production at Universal at the same time was the W. C. Fields vehicle, “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.”

I recently watched the film online and enjoyed it despite its predictability and formulaic writing. The atmosphere was fittingly dark and foreboding. And it wasn’t too far along when I realized that Mel Brooks must have used the plot as a template for his “Young Frankenstein.” Here too the son of the monster creator was returning to the scene of his father’s ‘crime.’ The clincher was the local police inspector, played by Lionel Atwill. The character sports an artificial arm, which Kenneth Mars spoofs in Brooks’ version.  The only thing is, Mars wasn’t all that far off of what Atwill had done in his characterization, even down to using the wooden arm when striking a light and while using darts.

A viewing is worthwhile just for the comparison.

Swashbuckler

The long drawn out rasp of metal on metal accompanied the image of the sword being drawn from its scabbard. So began Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers. Throughout the title sequence a series of stop action multiple images of two figures locked in combat beautifully set the tone for the next hour and an half.

I was standing on the stairs of one of the exits, checking something behind the screen, when a customer who had recently entered came bounding up these stairs to bump the exit door open and let his pals in. I stepped forward and told the “doorman” that he could join his friends outside. Too bad, they missed out on what was going to happen next.

My friend Dave liked the film too. And it may have been the reason behind our seeking out a fencing club to join. We found one that met in the community center in the Green Lake area north of Seattle.

As for all beginners, there was no jumping into things the first day. Nor the second. Nor any time soon. Basics had to be learned first. How to stand. How to move. Forward and back. The stance at first was awkward, and self-conscious, but as you began to move, it became the most natural thing in the world. Your favored foot was pointed forward and your other heel in line with the front one and pointed at the perpendicular. And you sat into a crouch, with both knees bent, and with your weight balanced over the rear or anchor leg. The lower half of your body was changed into a giant spring, so it was explained. And you felt it, especially in rapid movement.

Then practice, practice, practice. Lunge and recover, lunge and recover. And then we were taught how to hold the foil. (Dave preferred the pistol grip; I preferred the regular). Lectures followed on the geometry of fencing. Everything comes down to two points: the point of your foil and that of your opponent, your line of attack or parrying of his.

I kept waiting for a reference to The Three Musketeers, but was surprised when the instructor mentioned a sequence from another film instead. He was demonstrating the balestra – a movement used to close distance quickly between yourself and an opponent. It is a fast hop, followed by a lunge at the other fencer. This was a movement that Basil Rathbone employed against Errol Flynn in the Adventures of Robin Hood. I remembered seeing it, but it was all so fast – a blur really – that it took this extra knowledge of what the move was to understand what had taken place.

[Actually at the time I was more fixed on another realization. When I saw Robin Hood – at the Harvard Exit, of course – it was double billed with another Flynn flick, The Adventures of Don Juan. Watching them back to back you notice things. In Robin Hood, I saw a scene in which a drawbridge drops down and a number of riders charge out in pursuit. The exact same footage was repeated in Don Juan. It was my introduction to library footage. Say the director or the editor needs to fill a gap in his story, rather than setting up everything for another shoot, you just see what you can use from what the studio has in its “library.” In this instance the makers of Don Juan (1948) went back and borrowed this footage from the older film (1938).]

The Three Musketeers had a long run at the UA Cinemas, from the end of March 1974 through to September. And I was able to check in often and observe the swordplay. About the time it left, I was also leaving the UA (that story later) and moving on to the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle. And you bet I was back when the sequel – The Four Musketeers – opened the next year. And I kept on fencing, even when we moved down to the Portland OR area. But that’s another story for another day – so stay tuned and Watch This Space.