Benny the Smuggler #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Benny the Smuggler

I came across a surprising little bit in Variety dated 1/10/1939. The radio comedian/violinist Jack Benny made a court appearance in New York to answer to a charge of smuggling.

Based on the strength of his popularity over the air waves he had returned to the silver screen with a contract at Paramount (an initial contract with MGM in the late 1920s, was cancelled due to low grosses on his films for them). So, for a decade now he and his wife Sadie Marks (aka Mary Livingstone) were living in LA. These charges forced him to make repeated trips across the nation to tend to this matter. And in January 1939, as the case came to a close, he had to to leave off production on his then current Paramount film – “Man About Town.”

The article goes on to list his lawyer and his agent who were advising him. The best advice, however, came from his New York lawyer – another surprise – a man by the name of Colonel Bill Donovan.

This was a name I immediately recognized – the future founder of the OSS (the precursor of the CIA).

Of course, this immediately raised all sorts of speculation, indeed plots for screenplays percolated in my brain, involving a reluctant performer doing the bidding of a spymaster in a bumbling manner behind the lines in Fortress Europe in the coming world war.  (Not quite the plot for “To Be or Not to Be,” but what if?)

Further research revealed a more mundane course of events. Mr. Benny had been preyed upon by a conman on a trip to France where he bought over $2000 worth of jewels for his wife. The gentleman falsely claimed to hold diplomatic immunity when he offered to carry Benny’s valuables through customs, thereby avoiding duty taxes. In this the comedian foolishly acquiesced (as the judge duly noted when he passed sentence on him – a suspended sentence and a $10,000 fine).

Donovan, in his capacity as Benny’s legal advisor had wisely counseled him to plead no contest, and to take an apologetic stance before the bench. To do otherwise Wild Bill thought would threaten any good will his audience felt towards him.

His film ‘Man About Town’ premiered in Benny’s hometown of Waukegan IL on June 25th, with general release in early July 1939.

Other than this post I don’t plan to cover it any further in this series. It did smash summer business, which in itself was a minor miracle for Paramount, but it has not stood the test of time. As its contemporary critics noted, the music numbers ground the forward momentum to halt, something for which today’s audience have little patience.

Hoorah for Vaudeville #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Hoorah for Vaudeville

There is a large section in the first edition of Variety for January 1939 given over to the discussion of vaudeville. Unlike their reports on the state of film and radio which floated a generally upbeat prognosis, the future for vaudeville was looking rather bleak. Yes, it had been pronounced down and out before, but it was still with them – with even signs of a tiny resurgence. Emphasis on ‘tiny.’

Many performers in vaudeville had and were translating themselves into careers in film and/or radio. For example, Buster Keaton, Mae West, W. C. Fields, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and George and Gracie Burns.

But as history has proved vaudeville as they knew it did pass from the scene.

[Aside – I have had the thought lately that it has reappeared in our age under the form and content of the reality talent shows].

One of the articles in this section entitled ‘Firsts’ by Joe Laurie jr.  enumerates for us milestones and first time acts in the world of vaudeville.

Several caught my attention and I now bring them to yours.

Michael Leavitt is generally credited to have first used the term “vaudeville.” Originally a blackface minstrel show singer in the mid 18th Century, he rose to become a theatrical entrepreneur by touring the country with US and European acts with his variety shows.  In France such entertainments were called “vaudeville.”

An early reference had a Civil War connection that captured my Civil War geekiness. “Nick Norton and Bill Emmett did the first ‘double-dutch’ act in 1864.” A double dutch act was a skit acted out by two people speaking an ethnic English, in this case German (called at the time dutch, springing from the name of their language Deutch). Humor arose from their fractured application of the language arising from their mother tongue. They would close with a song – in this instance “Going to Fight Mitt Siegel,” a reference to the Union general Franz Sigel, who led other German immigrants into battle against the southern armies in the Civil War.

Al Jolson was the first to sing on his knees. (Needing no further explanation).

Then, this oddity – “Harper & Stencil were the first and about the only double one-legged song and dance men. Harper had his right leg off while Stencil had his left. They wore the same size shoes and would buy a pair for both of them, one wearing the right and the other the left.”

“Lumiere’s motion pictures were first shown at Keith’s Union Square in July 1895.” The French brothers, inventors of the motion picture in France were here used as filler between the acts in this vaudeville house. Increasingly, this would be the case until the matter flipped topsy-turvy as vaudeville acts were used as filler in cinemas. RKO studios – (Radio Keith Orpheum) was put together with the old Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville circuit making up its exhibition wing.

“Lew Randall the first buck and wing dancer.” I couldn’t find much on this individual, other than acknowledgements that he was first. The buck and wing is a particular tap dance style. The first time I became cognizant of the form was my viewing of “Singin’ in the Rain,” in which Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor left me breathless with astonishment in their “Fit as a Fiddle” number early on in that film. The scene in this 1952 film is a flashback to when the pair were a couple of barnstorming vaudevillians, prior to landing in Hollywood where they landed work at the studios.

Many vaudevillians will be making appearances in this series. So, stay tuned and Watch This Space.

Tidbits from Variety #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Tidbits from Variety

I like perusing the pages of old film related periodicals (such as Hollywood Reporter, Photoplay, Motion Picture World,  American Cinematographer), and among such titles Variety is a particular favorite. I am especially attracted to the shorter blurbs when a name or film title catches my eye.

Below I have a selection of a few from its pages for the month of January 1939. With some exceptions I will be writing about these films as I continue in #1939TheMiracleYear.

“Boris Morros, draws the musical direction on Walter Wanger’s “Stage Coach.”
It’s his first assignment since leaving Paramount, where he headed the music department. Louis Lipstone succeeded him there.”

“Desert near Yuma Ariz., is the location of main operations for Paramount’s ‘Beau Geste’ slated to roll late this month with William Wellman producing and directing.
Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston are cast as the three brothers. J. Carroll Naish and Brian Donlevy the heavies.”

“C. B. De Mille Monday (1/9) directed ‘Union Pacific’ from a stretcher.
He suffered a recurrent attack of an ailment, which forced him to undergo surgery last summer.”

“Ernst Lubitsch’s two-picture deal with Metro is due to net him more than $200,000. First job is the direction of ‘Mme Curie’ starring Greta Garbo. Second is ‘Shop around the Corner,’ which he intended to produce on his own before he made the Metro deal.”

“’Titanic’ story of the greatest modern sea disaster, gets the gun April 1 at the Selznick-International studio. Alfred Hitchcock, British director, arrives late this month with Richard Blaker, English novelist, who is doing the script.
Hitchcock was also set to direct ‘Rebecca,’ but it is not likely to be filmed this year.”

“Lee Garmes is en route from London to be chief cameraman for David O. Selznick on “Gone with the Wind.”  
Susan Myrick, Macon Ga., newspaper columnist and friend of Margaret Mitchell gets the job of head coach of Southern accents and customs on ‘Wind.’ Latest addition to the cast is Hattie McDaniel in the mammy role.”

So – as a quiz to you, dear reader, which of the titles above do you think won’t be written about as part of the 1939 the miracle year series?

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.

What Tech Had to Do with It #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year The Set Up What Tech Had to Do with It

By 1939 the technology behind filmmaking had attained a comfortable maturity. It was a decade after the innovation of sound so that element of the process had been integrated into the studio factory system  (Inroads also were being made for the standardization of sound systems in the field for better quality – for the equipment in theaters tended to be a hodgepodge mix).

Sound was now a reliable instrument in the tool-belt of the artistic minds charged with creating the projects. In fact coming to grips with the disciplines that good sound recording called for, led to other time and money saving innovations. For instance advances in process backgrounds like rear-projection and matte shots (originally developed to get around noisy environments), were now saving money.

Add to this the special effects and miniature departments (the film King King, for instance) which opened the imagination to become filmed ‘reality.’ If someone could think it, they could figure a way to capture it on film.

Improvements also came to the very basics – the film stock – faster and finer grain panchromatic films made for crisper black and white pictures – first introduced by Agfa-Ansco – and then right behind them, Eastman Kodak. One could almost “see” color in black and white for the range of gradations was expanded. As for color film, though fifteen different companies claimed to have their own version in the works, only Technicolor was then in use. And it was glorious and gorgeous.

Advances in cameras did their part. The Mitchell swaddled in its hood (aka ‘the blimp’) kept the noise of the camera machinery from intruding upon the soundtrack. And Walt Disney’s multi-plane camera would lead to more and better advances in the field of animation.

It was indeed a good time to have a studio in Hollywood.

The Set Up – By the Numbers #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year The Set Up By theNumbers

When it comes down to it, the film business is exactly that. It is a business.

And it is also an art form, and more specifically in the studios of Hollywood, a collaboration of artists.

The two come together in a marriage of sorts. But by no means is it a marriage of equals. The business side, by dint of the numbers it collects (i.e. the monies come their way first), is the dog that wags the tail.

So a look at some numbers:

On the production side for the prior year of 1938, a total of 769 films were released, 362 from major companies and 407 from the independents (with a mix of US produced and foreign imports for both). This marked a slow climb from the 595 films in 1930 when the squeeze of the depression that hit in 1929 could be visualized. (1928 had reached a high of 834, and stumbled in 1929 to 707). Things were looking up on the production side.

In 1938 there were 18,182 motion picture theaters in the US.  They saw roughly 85,000,000 paying customers pass through their doors that year, yielding a total gross of 1,016,600,000.

Attendance for 1938 showed a drop off from the 88 million of 1937. This disparity showed up in the weak numbers for the spring and early summer of 1938. A panic set in at the studios, so they came up with a campaign to ballyhoo the box office – calling it the ‘Motion Pictures Greatest Year” campaign.

This hype came true – not for 1938, but for the year 1939.

Announcement #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Announcement

Now that I have finished the last post for DEW (Diary of the End of the World), I’ve been thinking about making another daily post on another of my interests.  For some time I have been researching the background for a play that I plan to write. I have always had an interest in ‘film’ – aka ‘the movies’ – aka ‘the picture show’ – aka ‘the flickers.’ (I guess that covers the generations). I propose to chronicle the people, films and events of a year that many consider to be a watershed in the history of film – 1939. I hold a particular fondness for those that were released that year – the year that many call the “Miracle Year.”

The show business newspaper Variety kicked off the new year of 1939 with an article touting the 33rd anniversary of their publication, and tied it back to a similar milestone which marked a third of century since the beginnings of Hollywood, the film capital of the world.

It enumerates a number of companies that made the journey from the east for the sunshine state and for the freedom that move allowed them from the fees of the Edison Patent company. There were some instances of visits purely to cover newsworthy events – such as the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, but most were sent by the entrepreneurs responsible for the growing number of nickelodeons sprouting across the face of the nation – with the intent of making films themselves to keep those silver screens lit, and their seats filled.

Hopefully everyone will find this as entertaining as I do. And mayhaps will move them to sample the films of that bygone era. They will be immeasurably enriched.

So stay tuned and Watch this Space.