What I Didn’t Know About Harry Cohn

harryyoungI recently picked up a used audiotape of the biography of Harry Cohn by Bob Thomas, King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn. First published in 1967, the book was revised in 1990 with additional interviews and material; in 2000, it was republished, including an audiotape edition with a forward by Peter Bart. King Cohn is not groundbreaking in structure or shocking in content, but I did learn a great deal about the meanest movie mogul in Hollywood as well as the love of his life, Columbia Pictures.

Most of the Golden Age movie moguls started at the bottom in the movie business and worked their way up to head of production at their studios. While Cohn was no exception, I discovered that his entrance into the film industry was quite unique. He was working as a song plugger for sheet-music publishers when he had a brilliant idea to increase sales. The latest songs were routinely plugged at movie theaters between films by the house orchestras who played them while slides of pretty pictures were shown to the audience. Cohn believed that audiences would respond better to movie footage than slides, so he began to produce footage for theaters to project during the songs.  To maximize the effect, Cohn learned to match the content of the images to the songs’ lyrics. Jack Cohn, Harry’s brother, worked for Universal Pictures at the time, and he showed Cohn’s innovation to studio owner Carl Laemmle. Laemmle was impressed enough to give Harry a job.  Eventually, Harry and Jack left Universal to form their own production company.

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The Eternal Star, Trapped in Time

Quick, how long was Clark Gable’s movie career?  If you said  38 years, lasting from 1923, his first uncredited extra work in Fighting Blood, to the 1961 posthumuous release of The Misfits in 1961, you’d be correct, technically.  For me, his career spanned 1930 to 1939, with Gone with the Wind as his swansong.   Oh, he didn’t actually do anything of note in 1930 and he did a hell of a lot of note after 1939 but when I think of Gable, I think of the thirties.   I identify most actors with a specific decade and, as box office returns would indicate, so do a great many people as actors’ careers tend to have a five to ten year period of total dominance followed by years of ups and downs.

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I’m in a fightin’ mood!

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Oooh, I’m spoiling for a fight today… a real knock-down, dust-up, take-no-prisoners, no-quarter-given, apocalyptic barney. My knuckles are itching to bite into a set of teeth and my teeth are itching to lay into a row of knuckles. I won’t be satisfied until I dissolve in a flurry of biffery, until I drink blood — mine or yours — and if you want to be the one to set me off here’s all you have to do…  [...MORE]

All aboard the Stagecoach!

I missed y’all last week, due to a technical difficulty.  And thanks to that glitch, I missed posting about John Ford’s Stagecoach in advance of last Sunday’s screening on TCM.  Which is a shame, but at the same time Stagecoach is one of those classic movies so towering in its importance that it practically dwarfs all efforts to really appreciate it–here is the film that made John Wayne a star, that proved that Westerns could move from the B-movie ghetto to being major Hollywood fare, and that then established the character types and narrative tropes that would fuel all those subsequent Westerns inspired by it.  That’s a lot to pull off in just 96 minutes.  More to the point, it’s a set of accomplishments defined primarily by what comes later, by what we know about Stagecoach‘s precedent-setting legacy.

In other words, forget that I missed putting it in context when it aired on TV last week–what would it have been like to experience it back in 1939?  That’s almost beyond our reach altogether.  But c’mon, let’s give it a try, shall we?

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The Hawks Report #2: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

He sat in the audience of High Noon, fuming.  He didn’t like the way Gary Cooper slunk through the town unable to muster any allies for his heroic stand against Evil.  He thought it was unmanly.  And after shaking his fist for a while and muttering oaths under his breath, he realized that he wasn’t accomplishing anything just venting his rage at the screen.  So he went to work, to make his own movie, as a deliberate rejection of High Noon.

When it appeared in theaters, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo claimed to be based on a short story by “B.H. McCampbell,” which makes it sound impressive.  In fact, “B.H. McCampbell” was Hawks’ daughter Barbara, and her “short story” was just some spitballing about how cool it would be if some gangsters had a bunch of  dynamite in crates and some good guys came along and shot up the crates to make them blow up.  Which is, indeed, very cool.  But that little bit of business aside, writers Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett were really tasked with making a manlier version of High Noon, with the same character types in the same situation but in which the sheriff doesn’t get all wishy washy and scared and whatnot, but just stoically goes out and kicks some ass.

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George Sherman, Director of Westerns

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When director George Sherman passed away at the age of 82 in 1991, he was noted only for the quantity of his output. The obituaries in both the Los Angeles and New York Times pointed out the “175″ credits he had accrued as a director for screens both large and small (IMDb lists 126), although nothing as to their quality aside from their “low-budget” origins. I recently enjoyed some of Sherman’s Three Mesquiteers Westerns that he made for Republic (which I wrote about here), but a recent column by Dave Kehr has made me ravenous for more. Reviewing Dawn at Soccoro (1954, released as part of a TCM Vault Collection), Kehr describes him as “experimental”, and the film as,  “a western that might have been imagined by Kafka.” Fortuitously, more of Sherman’s work has been reaching home video. Last month Universal released a budget-priced “Classic Westerns” set of 10 films that include two Shermans: Comanche Territory (1950) and Tomahawk (1951), while Olive Films finished off their stash of John Wayne Mesquiteers films with Wyoming Outlaw (1939).

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Tracing My Irish Roots Through the Movies

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John Wayne & Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man (1942)

When I was a child my family regularly celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day on March 17th. My parents and grandparents encouraged me to wear green and my mother would often make my brother and I a meal that consisted of corned beef and cabbage or my personal favorite, Irish stew with dumplings. But whenever I’d ask family members about our Irish ancestors I was usually ignored or met with a wry smile and a joke about our criminal connections. The truth is that most of my Irish ancestors were apparently kicked out of the British Isles in the early 1800s and ended up in Australia, which was a penal colony at the time. As a youngster I didn’t exactly understand what it meant to the larger world to be related to convicts but I was made to feel somewhat embarrassed and ashamed due to my family’s reluctance to discuss our personal history. Now that most of my immediate family has passed on I’ve taken it upon myself to delve into our past and uncover our Irish roots. It’s been an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening experience but I’ve had to rely on my own powers of investigation along with lots of paper documents and books to give me a better understanding of who I am and how I got here. I’ve also turned to one of my favorite obsessions for insight, the wonderful world of movies.

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The Young Adventures of John Wayne

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Marion Morrison had to work hard to become John Wayne. His earth-straddling lope and taffy-stretched line readings were not invented by John Ford or Howard Hawks, only finely exploited by them. The flood of Republic Pictures movies released on Blu-Ray by Olive Films illustrates this fact, filling in the blanks of the evolution of one of the screen’s most indelible personalities. Following the box-office failure of the Raoul Walsh masterpiece The Big Trail (1930), Wayne would have to wait nearly a decade before his delayed acceptance as part of Hollywood’s firmament in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). The period in between shows him sliding into obscurity, from Columbia and Warners down to the resourceful Poverty Row studios Mascot, Monogram and the slightly more reputable Republic. Olive has so far transferred sparkling editions of seven of the Republics, most of which finds him stepping in to play Stony Brooke, the leader of the long-running Western trio The Three Mesquiteers (he already played in a modern dress Three Musketeers for a 1933 Mascot serial – endless remakes are nothing new). Stony Brooke is lithe and quick where the classic John Wayne figures are slow-moving monuments, visible in Olive’s gorgeous 4K scan of The Quiet Man, out today on Blu-Ray, but his Mesquiteers voice exudes the chummy warmth and presence of Wayne-ness, not yet weighed down with history.

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What I Didn’t Know About John Wayne

I recently drove by one of those roadside sales that are occasionally set up at gas stations or abandoned parking lots in which vendors hawk kitschy items such as velvet paintings, pictures of unicorns, and huge photos of iconic movie stars. Nestled between Marilyn and Elvis was John Wayne decked out in his cowboy hat, vest, and kerchief, much like the image to the left. I noticed Duke right away because I had just finished reading a biography about him.  I was struck by the idea that most passers-by would recognize the star immediately and yet know nothing about him, because—like other movie icons—his career, life, and star image have been reduced to a cliché. Wayne’s image has a political connotation because of his conservative beliefs that has only gotten narrower over the years. I have seen his image used for right-wing slogans I don’t think Wayne would approve of, and I have read articles and posts that vilify his films because the writer didn’t like his politics. After reading Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne by Ronald Davis, I was surprised by how little I knew about him. The following are 12 facts about John Wayne that amazed and amused me.

The name on his Wayne’s birth certificate is Marion Robert Morrison; in 1911, it was changed to Marion Michael Morrison when his younger brother was born and christened Robert. As a child, he was nicknamed Duke, because he had a large dog named Duke; the dog was Big Duke and the boy became Little Duke. He appeared uncredited in eleven films before playing a substantial role in the musical comedy Words and Music for which he was credited as Duke Morrison. In 1929, when he landed the lead in The Big Trail, director Raoul Walsh and producer Winfield Sheehan changed his name to John Wayne, an appellation he was never comfortable with.

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Stuff I love

I feel as though I’ve been complaining a lot lately. Pointing the finger. Assigning blame. And so, with my birthday looming, I’m going to take a break from all that and throw some love at you. [...MORE]

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