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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Didja Know: Part III

Here are the latest facts that were "news to me." Didja know that...

Cagney gets a little rough with Bogie in Angels with Dirty Faces.

... James Cagney almost slept with the fishes???

In 1939, James Cagney and George Raft went to work on the intense prison film Each Dawn I Die (left). The two leading men knew each other and got along well. Both had grown up "in the hood" as it were, and had rubbed elbows with some of the nastiest ne'er do wells-- some of whom would go on to become leading gangsters and Mafiosos. However, both managed to keep themselves from becoming too deeply involved in the mobster lifestyle. For his part, Jim stayed completely away from the men he considered morally reprehensible. George, on the other hand, forged certain alliances when acting as a chauffeur for certain goons in his Hell's Kitchen days, yet he never got into the deep stuff. A suave guy, he knew how to play the game, kept things social, and stayed out of the business, while giving the bad guys just enough allegiance to maintain their respect and his own separate life. These connections would come in handy. James and George met again in Hollywood, and Jim got George one of his first big breaks dancing the "Peabody" in Taxi. Later, George would return the favor.

During the big Hollywood shakedown, when gang warfare had resulted in physical and financial intimidation of the studios-- who were forced to use mob managed union workers-- the notoriously stubborn Jack Warner must have been causing the big guns a little bit of irritation. While on the set of Each Dawn I Die, George happened to see his old pal Willie Bioff wandering around the set. Bioff's eyes landed menacingly on Cagney, no friend to the mob, then moved up to a large klieg light hanging above. George then witnessed Bioff give a signal to a worker standing in the rafters. What George didn't know, was that Bioff was planning a celebrity assassination: he wanted to take Cagney out by dropping a light on his head! Offing one of Warner's biggest stars was a definite way of sending the big-wig a message. It has been popularly recalled that George stepped in to save Jim's life, but this is only partially true. George clearly knew that something was afoot, but he didn't know what, and he also knew better than to get in the middle of it. Later, after the film wrapped, Bioff told George that he was indeed going to bump Cagney off, but had been halted because they didn't want to screw up filming for George. So, in effect, George did save Jim's life, even if indirectly. One wonders if Jim ever knew how close he came to curtains???

Of course, Jim always knew that life on a film set was dangerous. Not only is a film celebrity's career constantly in jeopardy due to changing public tastes, competitive talent, or demanding moguls, but before the advent of the Screen Actors Guild-- of which Jim was a proud member and instigator-- performers were often put through the mill emotionally and physically. Overworked, underpaid, and unprotected, the company brass had little concern for the pawns in their money game. After all, if you lose one actor, you can just hire another. This mentality led to the lackadaisical way actors were put in danger. Ever notice how in those old Cagney pictures and likewise gangster films, the shooters are always pointing their guns at a downward angle? This was because they were often shooting with live rounds. For those big productions, when Jim had to outrun or dodge an array of bullets, he wasn't acting. When working on The Public Enemy, for example, a man named "Bailey" was hired as a professional sharpshooter. Having served in the Great War, Bailey was an ace shot. The director would set up the scene and direct the movement, then Jim's character would be instructed to run this way or that away from the spray of bullets, which Bailey, from his gunner platform, calculatingly fired behind him, leaving authentic bullet holes along the walls of the set. Filming these scenes took a lot of guts-- or stupidity. As good a shot as Bailey was, it took a lot of trust for Jim to perform knowing that if he moved a hair out of place, he might lose his whole head! Luckily, the miracle of special effects has made this method of gun play obsolete on the sound stage.

... John Barrymore had one up on Al Jolson?

Everyone recalls The Jazz Singer as being the miracle film that moved cinema from a land of silence to a world of sound. However, this transition did not occur overnight. Even The Jazz Singer itself was not an in toto sound film from start to finish. Instead, it is a silent piece with synced music in various places, into which Al Jolson stealthily added a line of dialogue or two. Before continuous music and dialogue became the norm, there were films produced with random sound effects, profiting off the gimmick of the new innovation. Inserted into the fray were a whistle here, a car horn there, and occasionally entire songs. But, before The Jazz Singer was released in 1927, John Barrymore's romantic epic Don Juan was produced in 1926 (left). It represented another step toward sound film in that it was actually the first film Warner Brothers released with the use of the novel "Vitaphone." Warners really spearheaded the sound film movement by investing in and acquiring this new apparatus, while the rest of the industry remained hesitant both about the change and the huge costs it would incur-- not only in production but in restructuring theaters to suit the new technology. The first Vitaphone feature film, Don Juan was synced from start to finish with sound effects and music, though dialogue was still noticeably absent. When played to packed houses, it was often accompanied by more talkie shorts and even an intro by the fearful censor boss, Will Hays.The film was a huge success as a result, but despite big box office, it failed to recoup its financial losses. This put Harry Warner off a bit, but Sam Warner-- the most forward thinking of the brothers-- really pushed for continued use of the device. His pegged the next Vitaphone feature as The Jazz Singer. Though not the first film produced with the Vitaphone, it would in time prove to be the most vital. Ironically, Sam would pass away one day before the premiere of his greatest success.

... the Egyptian was the first Hollywood movie theater?

Back in the early Hollywood days, the awkward transition from live performance to recorded film was evidenced in the film premiere. These days, one merely sits back as the opening credits start to roll, but in the 1920s especially, the film premiere was made to be almost as big a production as the film itself. Sid Grauman personified the extremities of cinematic extravagance with his plush movie palaces, complete with vast stages for elaborate pre-show performances, skits, dance numbers, and songs. The theater-going experience was just that-- an "experience," and one ripe for the senses. In addition to transporting his paying customers and clientele to various different places as they watched the screen, Sid too constructed his theaters to resemble far off, exotic locales. Grandeur, splendor, pleasure-- there was no holding back, and customers paid to be awed. While his Chinese Theatre is best remembered, he too had great success with a previous venture, The Egyptian Theatre, which opened 5 years earlier in 1922, mere blocks away on Hollywood Boulevard (right). This was the first official Hollywood movie theater because it was built specifically for cinema and was not a transformed storefront or vaudeville theater like the others, including The Iris.

Modeled after the infamous African country, and cashing in on the invigorated interest in the recent King Tut phenomenon, Sid covered the Egyptian's walls with ancient artwork and hieroglyphics, convincing audiences that they were sitting in the midst of a desert mirage. Lining the red carpet entrance, where fans stood to watch their favorite stars attend premieres, there too were rows of vendors offering souvenir items and showcasing costumes and props from the latest flick. Needless to say, the largess made it a huge success. To Sid, it was all in the details. He even had a sentinel fully costumed, standing on the roof of the theater to announce when showtime was about to commence. After the pre-show hooplah, the fan mayhem, and the dancing girls, it's a wonder anyone had any energy left to even watch the scheduled movie. Because Sid created this first massive theater, he literally brought film to Hollywood, which until then wasn't considered the hub of the industry it is today. With studios scattered all around Los Angeles, Hollywood and cinema had little connection until Sid came along, which is why he was given the name "Mr. Hollywood." After nearly 90 years of operation, the Egyptian is still going, though it's interior has changed a great deal. Nonetheless, it remains the oldest running 100%-movie-theater in Hollywood.

... "virgin" is a dirty word?

In 1953, Otto Preminger decided to tackle Hugh Herbert's smash play and turn it into a film. The Moon is Blue, a comedy of wit and manners, may have read like a modern Oscar Wilde play, but it translated like a bombshell. Opposing forces took offense to the very open and lighthearted dialogue with regard to sex. The film's heroine is a young, outspoken, and charming girl played by newcomer Maggie McNamara, who just happens to be a virgin and makes no apology about it. After she meets architect William Holden on the Empire State Building observation deck (where else?), he becomes completely smitten, but is mostly consumed with the idea of-- politely-- ridding her of the tedious "virgin" label. What results is a inept seduction with fellow suitor David Niven thrown into the mix and both boys realizing that they're no match for Maggie's smarts. Despite the fact that all ends well, in matrimony, MPPDA head Joseph Breen was hot under the collar due to the casual way with which sex was discussed, not to mention the open way in which the characters of Holden and Niven went about hatching plans to seduce their innocent prey. Breen refused to give the film the censorship's seal of approval, but Preminger released the film anyway with the help of United Artists. Such a thing was unprecedented. Due to the film's themes and the use of words like "seduction," "mistress," "pregnant," and "virgin"-- the latter of which had never been used in such context in a film before-- several theaters refused to show it. It started at small venues, slowly drumming up a fan following, and eventually earned a hefty $3.5m dollar profit. "Virgin" thus became the word that started the toppling of the production code administration. The film was additionally successful in earning McNamara an Academy Award nomination and winning Niven a Golden Globe, (which was doubly eventful for him, since originally the studio didn't want to cast him, thinking he was old news). 

... porn is nearly as old as film itself?

That's right. We've all been dirty perverts a long, long time. It's nothing new. While some pinpoint early German sexual education/health films as the earliest source of pornography, the movie labeled as the first official stag film is 1915's A Free Ride (right). There is some debate as to the year of its release, which may actually have been later, around 1923, but thus far it is the oldest surviving product of our cinematic debauchery. The plot is about as intricate as those today: some random guy picks up some random girls on the side of the road. After he pulls to the side to relieve himself in the desert, one of the two females follows him to do the same. The sight of her panties dropping apparently is more than he can handle, and before you know it... Yadda yadda yowza! Because such levels of sexuality and outright raunchiness were illegal, the film was not released publicly but was instead shown in all-male clubs, so as not to offend delicate, female sensibilities-- excluding of course the two female leads. What can be said about this now hilarious attempt at celluloid erotica, is that the filmmakers apparently embraced its comedy. The director is credited as A. Wise Guy, the DP as Will B. Hard, and the title writer as Will She.


  1. Very entertaining post! As for porn, someone said that no matter what the invention, some man will figure out a way to use it for porn! Just goes to show you!