Cursed Movies III: Making Don Quixote, a Test of Adversity and Perseverance

Cinema, Literary & Linguistics

CervantesDon Quixote is without peer as the foremost work in Spanish literature…it is considered without question to be the most influential work in the entire Spanish language literary canon❉. The general consensus among authorities in the field is that it was the primary manifestation (first pub. Vol I 1605) of the novel as we understand the development of that emerging literary form.

DQ & Sancho Panza
The Spanish proudly extol Cervantes’ name in the same reverential tone as the English speaking world bestows on Shakespeare. When it came to adaptations of Don Quixote to the cinema screen however, Cervantes’ great novel has not experienced the same good fortune as screen productions of Shakespeare’s greatest plays have had. While the story of the ageing knight-errant’s folly-filled forays in the campo of La Mancha has been a popular source material for the theatre, opera and both the big and small screen, it has not proved a rewarding experience for some of the leading filmmakers! There have been a number of attempts to bring the book to the cinema that have ended either in disarray or as incomplete projects…the mildly suspicious among us might easily convince themselves that the subject of Don Quixote is jinxed!

Disney: the animated feature’s arrested development
One of the early US attempts to produce a film of Don Quixote was as a feature-length cartoon by Walt Disney. The Disney team laboured for six decades commencing in the 1930s to make an animated version of Don Quixote. Studio artist Ferdinand Horvath produced project sketches of the Spanish knight-errant for Disney as early as 1929. Preparatory work for a film project during WWII using concepts inspired by 17th century artistic titan Diego Velázquez was jettisoned after Disney had two commercial failures in a row with Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940. The studio tried again, several times (1946, 1951, even as recent as the late 1990s). All of the projects were eventually aborted[1]. Don Quixote thus far has evaded all attempts at being ‘Disneyfied’.

Orson on the DQ set
Orson’s never-ending project: Less than awesome
Orson Welles’ efforts to make a film of Don Quixote was an incredibly drawn-out saga that failed to bear fruit. Financing (habitually a millstone around Welles’ cervix) was partly to blame but procrastination by the former “boy wonder” director was taken to a new level. Starting off with test footage as early as 1955, Welles was still intermittently working on the unfinished picture (which he described as his “own personal project”) when he died (1985). By which time Welles had 300,000 feet of shot film in the can! Eventually a version completed by a Spanish director saw the light of screen in the 1990s (described as a “Spanish restoration”). However according to James Clarke, the “print (was) impoverished…the film lacked clarity… (and) Welles’ commentary and dialogue was ineffectively dubbed into Spanish”[2].

The jinx again!
Dynamic Hollywood producer of the 1950s, Mike Todd, was riding high on the back of the blockbuster success of the star-studded Around the World in 80 Days. Todd chose “Don Quixote” as the follow-up project to ’80 Days’ based on the Jules Verne novel. Having cast his new, glamour wife Elizabeth Taylor to star in a lavish production of the Cervantes classic, the hard-headed Todd’s plans for “Don Quixote” perished in the airplane crash that took the producer’s life in 1958
.

The doco on DQ the disaster movie!
Terry Gilliam, nearly 20 years worth of broken mirrors!
The award for the most ill-fated attempt to bring “Don Quixote” to the screen goes to Monty Python member and film director Terry Gilliam. Gilliam first conceptualised his project in 1991…pre-production got underway seven years later and production itself got rolling in 2000 in Navarre (Spain). Gilliam brought his own, very idiosyncratic take on the Man of La Mancha (very loosely based on the original story). He cast Johnny Depp as a 21st century time-traveller hurled back to engage with the perpetually confused 16th century “windmill-tilter”.

From the start obstacles and setbacks piled on top of each other – flash floods destroyed sets and equipment in the Spanish campo, as a result the filmmakers had problems securing insurance for the production; Jean Rochefort as Quixote took ill and had to leave the set and the movie altogether; it was discovered that one of the film sites was directly below a Spanish Air Force flight path; plus the production was hit with further financial problems – the net outcome was the cessation and cancellation of the production. Gilliam made several subsequent attempts to relaunch the movie, in all there were eight unsuccessful tilts at making “Don Quixote” over a period of 18-19 years with a succession of actors coming and going. In 2002 Gilliam, no doubt with cathartic intent, released a documentary Lost in La Mancha about the trials and tribulations of trying to realise the plagued ‘Quixote’ feature film[3].

Michael Palin was one of many actors lost in transit in the course of making Gilliam’s film!
The indefatigable American Python resurrected the project once more earlier this year with longtime collaborator Jonathan Pryce in the title role. Finally in June of this year Gilliam tweeted, rather sheepishly, that the filming was finally completed…The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is slated for release in 2018[4].

PostScript: ‘Don Quixote’, a mixed track record in the cinema
Notwithstanding the long trail of misfortunes and misadventures that has bedevilled the efforts of the above film-makers to make Don Quixote, it would be misleading to conclude that the subject has been universally cursed. A survey of Don Quixote’s cinematic history on the screen confirms that it has been far from unmakeable. First point to note is that there have been a considerable number of ‘DQ’ films churned out over the decades[5], many of which went through more or less without mishap, or at least with nothing like the obstacles and hurdles in the way of Gilliam and Welles and others.

From across the world of international cinema these productions include the 1957 Russian version filmed in the Crimea (Dir: Grigori Kozintsev); the 1972 Man of La Mancha (a musical/comedy with Peter O’Toole in the lead); a 2000 feature with John Lithgow as the chivalrous but hopelessly misguided hidalgo (country gentleman); Albert Serra’s modernised Spanish version, Honour of the Knights (2006); a 2015 version directed by James Franco’s USC students, Don Quixote: The Ingenuous Gentleman of La Mancha; and believe it or not, a 2007 Spanish/Italian computer animation comedy Donkey Xote (hee-haw!), a light-hearted retelling of the classic story from the perspective of his squire Sancho Panza’s Equus Africanus steed.


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❉ its literary influence goes far beyond the Hispanic world…extending to his English contemporary Shakespeare who is widely thought to have collaborated with John Fletcher on a play (now lost), Cardenio, believed to be based on an episode in the Cervantes novel
Disney still haven’t entirely let it go…the phenomenal box office triumph of the Pirates of the Caribbean series has prompted Disney to engage ‘gun’ screenwriter Billy Ray to write something similar in tone for Don Quixote, ‘Disney Developing a Don Quixote Movie’, (J Kroll) Variety, 13-Oct-2016, www.variety.com

[1] James Clarke, ‘The troubled history of Don Quixote on film’, BFI: Film Forever, 26-Apr-2016, www.bfi.org.uk
[2] ibid. ; ”Don Quixote (unfinished film), Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[3] ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org; ‘My latest is a disaster movie’, The Guardian, 04-Feb-2001, www.theguardian.com
[4] “Sorry for the long silence…” (@TerryGilliam, tweeted 04-Jun-2017)
[5] in fact the tale of the muddled hidalgo with a penchant for charging at windmills has been a movie subject just about from the first dawn of the moving picture – as early as 1903 a silent film of Don Quixote was made by the French, ‘Don Quixote de La Mancha: DQ and Film’, (Barbara Robinson), USC Libraries (Research Guides), www.libguides.usc.edu

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The Arlington Amusement Hall, Collaroy’s Architectural Jewel from Yesteryear

Built Environment, Cinema, Heritage & Conservation, Local history

Over recent months Sydney “Pub Tsar” Justin Hemmes’ Merivale Group acquired the Collaroy Hotel on Pittwater Road for a reported $21 million⋇. The hotel (currently closed for renovation) is situated in one of the Northern Beaches’ finest old and best preserved buildings, the Arlington Amusement Hall✦. A hotel since the late 1990s The Arlington’s premises has traded under various names including ‘The Collaroy’ and the ‘Surf Rock Hotel’. Earlier than this the building had housed the Northern Beaches’ first wine bar called ‘1066’. The building also contains the separate Collaroy Beach Club.

The iconic building with its asymmetrical Federation brick facade has a commercial life story dating back to the First World War. It was built by Herbert Williamson for his wife Christina somewhere between 1915 and 1919. It was officially opened as the Arlington Amusement Hall in 1921 although it had already been used a cinema showing silent feature movies from 1919.

The Collaroy in 2017
At the time of The Arlington’s public opening the local newspaper described it thus, “The hall is situated right on the beach and attached to it are four shops … The hall is commodious, and is approached by a fine vestibule, a stage and dressing rooms and also a gallery add to the comfort of both entertainers and patrons …” Originally the building contained a row of (four) retail shops with attached 1st floor residences. We know that the business enterprises of three of these shops comprised a draper, a chemist and a stationer.

Collaroy, a beachhead prone to sand erosion
Arlington Amusement Hall’s location, built right on to the beachfront has made it and other buildings around it on that side of Pittwater Road susceptible to storm damage. In 1944 huge storms lashing the beach washed away some three metres of the Hall’s foundations. Fortunately the building was in the main spared in 2016 when many nearby properties had their frontages, fences and walls uprooted in the massive winter storms…not so fortunate was the Collaroy Beach Club premises affixed to the Arlington Hall/Hotel which lost a balcony in the violent onslaught of savage nature.

The Arlington 1920s
PostScript: Collaroy’s other building relic
It is interesting that Arlington Hall started its life as a picture theatre because today when people associate Collaroy with cinema, they think of another old historic building on the opposite side of Pittwater Road – the still operating, independent Collaroy Cinema (trading as ‘United-Cinemas” in conjunction with Avalon and Warriewood cinemas further up the peninsula). Collaroy Cinema, an Art Deco building from the 1930s, with its garish and (to some tastes) sickly blue-painted exterior, stands out from the modern beach shopfronts around it. The Art Deco building retains its elegant design, but its tired, slightly battered appearance representing nearly 80 years of lived-in experience is in stark contrast with the “tender loving care” bestowed on The Arlington. Collaroy Cinema remains one of the relatively few surviving and operating picture houses of its kind in New South Wales.

Picture house in Pittwater Road

Nomenclature: the name of both the suburb and the beach derives from the paddle steamer SS Collaroy which was stranded off the beach for three years in the 19th century (1881-84).

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⋇ coming on top of Merivale’s 2016 acquisition of another Northern Beaches’ landmark, the even more historic Newport Arms (rebranded by Hemmes as ‘The Newport’)
Amusement Hall seems to be a bit of a misnomer…rather than being a place where you’d expect to find penny arcade machines and games of fun and luck (the domain of English style seaside piers), amusement halls, also common in the US in the same era, could simply be large buildings which functioned as multi-purpose community halls

References:
John Morcombe, ‘Arlington Amusement Hall a Collaroy icon for almost a century’, Manly Daily, 31-Oct-2014
‘Collaroy/Narrabeen, Voices from the Past’, Australian Heritage Festival, 01-May-2017, www.nationaltrust.org.au
‘The Collaroy hotel’, Architects Nicholas + Associates, http://anplusa.com/projects/the-collaroy-hotel/
‘Art Deco Cinemas, Picture Palaces and Movie Theaters’, www.decolish.com

Cursed Movies II: The Conqueror Film’s Catastrophic Afterlife

Cinema, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

The Conqueror (1956) was a doomed film, both cinematically and in terms of its devastating human cost. Its reception critically was abysmal and its performance at the box office was less than mediocre. Reviews for the movie disaster have been consistent in assigning it an unenviable position as one of cinema’s worst ever pictures, one of Hollywood’s greatest “turkeys”¹.

Yahoo!Movies described The Conqueror as “the most toxic movie ever made”…tarnishing the careers of those who appeared in this egregious stinker, especially its star John Wayne, effectively bankrupting RKO Pictures (costing a blown-out $6 million) and contributing to the deaths of an inordinate number of its cast and crew².

John Wayne, faced with the need to fulfil the third and final picture of his contract with RKO, apparently fished the discarded script out of the rubbish bin and convinced the assigned director Dick Powell (who in turn convinced RKO’s owner Howard Hughes) to make the film with Wayne playing the role as Mongol warlord Genghis Khan (a role intended apparently for Marlon Brando). By all accounts Wayne was grossly miscast⋇, interpreting the great Mongol leader as a cowboy (probably an entirely natural notion for the Duke!). The script (by Oscar Millard) was terrible and vacuous as the following inane, awkward samples of the dialogue illustrate:

Temujin: I feel this Tartar wo-man is for me, and my blood says, take her. There are moments for wisdom and moments when I listen to my blood; my blood says, take this Tartar wo-man.
૱…………૱…………૱

Temujin: She is wo-man, Jamuga…MUCH wo-man!

૱…………૱…………૱

Snow Canyon NP
Radioactive set
The Conqueror was a patently absurd vehicle by any standard – as an attempt at film art or as a plausible historical reconstruction…but as disastrous as the movie was, it was to have far more serious and far-reaching tragic consequences. Most of the filming took place at Snow Canyon¤ near Saint George in Utah, 130 odd miles from a nuclear test site where the US Government detonated 11 above-ground nuclear explosions in 1953. By the time location filming took place, June-August 1954, winds had shifted the still highly radioactive soil downwind to Snow Canyon. The shooting of the action sequences (in an adventure movie this was most of the film!) necessitated that the performers wallowed in the carcinogenic dust day after day.

The film’s producers (Hughes and Powell) were aware of the proximity of the atomic testing before shooting started but had been assured by the government that the atomic tests posed no risks to public health, a gross deception (self-deception?). Compounding the dilemma, at the end of the location work Hughes ordered that 60 tons of the radioactive reddy-brown dirt from the Snow Canyon site in Utah be carted back to the RKO film set at Culver City for re-takes!

Human Fallout
Consequently, by about 1980 it could be shown that 91 of the 220 individuals who made up the film’s location staff had contracted cancer including its stars Wayne, Susan Haywood, Agnes Moorehead and Pedro Armendáriz (one of Wayne’s sons who had a small part in the movie later also died of cancer). There is no definitive way of proving that the contaminated soil was 100% to blame for the cancer deaths…Wayne had a heavy smoking habit (up to seven packs a day!), as did others in the cast, which could have been a contributing factor to the malignancies⍔. The harmful effects of the area’s radiation however is undeniably part of the explanation for such an aberrant outbreak of disease. Robert Pendleton, professor of biology at the University of Utah, concluded that the toxic fallout of Saint George was of epidemic proportions, that the toll was about three times what might be expected³. In addition it is well documented that health checks on ordinary residents of Saint George similarly revealed higher incidences of cancer than other comparable areas⁴.

PostScript: Howard Hughes’ own private purgatory
As is well-known, The Conqueror’s Producer Hughes lived as a recluse, (literally) hermetically sealed off from the rest of humanity, for his last years. It is believed that he deeply regretted his decision to go ahead with The Conqueror project. Hughes delayed the film’s theatrical release and attempted to purchase every single print to try to keep it out of the public eye. Part of his penance in his hermit mode of existence, it has been claimed, was to watch and re-watch the disastrous movie every day (along with Ice Station Zebra⁵).

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⋇ Wayne as a 13th century Asiatic warrior was a ludicrous choice, as the casting was overall – only two of the entire performers were of Asian descent. Many of the doomed extras were undisguised Navajo Indians
¤ Howard Hughes thought the rolling red hills would be similar in appearance to the steppes of Mongolia
⍔ although ‘Duke’ Wayne did not die from his lung cancer (which went into remission) but from the subsequent stomach cancer he contracted [Gaggiano, below]

¹ included in H & M Medved & R Dreyfuss’ 1978 The Fifty Worst Films of All Time
² ‘The Conqueror: The story of the most toxic movie in Hollywood history’, (Yahoo!Movies, 09-Nov-2016), www.uk.movies.yahoo.com
³ Pendleton: “…in a group this size you’d expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up even in a court of law” – Karen G Jackovich & Mark Sennet, ‘The Children of John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Dick Powell Fear That Fallout Killed Their Parents’, People, originally posted 10-Nov-1980, www.people.com
⁴ Rory Carroll, ‘Hollywood and the downwinders still grapple with nuclear fallout’, The Guardian,, 06-Jun-2015, www.guardian.com
⁵ Greg Caggiano, ‘The Conqueror (1956): The Film That Killed John Wayne … Literally’, Reel to Real, 26-Jul-2010, https://gcaggiano.wordpress.com/2010/07/26/the-conqueror-1956-the-film-that-killed-john-wayne-literally/

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Marsha Hunt, Century Call for an American Progressive and a Global Humanitarian

Cinema, Performing arts, Politics

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.

~ Søren Kierkegaard

On the 17th of this month US film actress with a social conscience Marsha Virginia Hunt turned 100, joining the illustrious company of Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas, forming a trio of Hollywood film centenarians all still alive! (Libby and Kirk both reached their triple figure milestones during 2016).

Adulation for Marsha’s momentous achievement haven’t quite attracted the stratospheric fanfare or media attention and hype that Kirk Douglas’ 100th bash did last December, or in past years as other Hollywood household names like Bob Hope’s did. Of course it would not be expected, Marsha has never achieved the limelight that those other centenarian luminaries demanded in their Hollywood careers. She was a serious actress but never got the star ‘creds’ that others in the business did…but the elusiveness of stardom for Marsha wasn’t down to a shortfall in her acting ability – rather the explanation for this lay in the intervention of external factors which were to impact on her career.

Marsha does Jane Austen
Ms Hunt’s film career from its start in the Thirties looked promising, but in the super-charged, competitive stakes for the glamour female roles she came close without ever quite clasping the big prize…especially in 1939 when she tested impressively for the much sort-after part of Melanie in Gone With The Wind but narrowly lost out to (fellow centenarian) Olivia de Havilland. The following year Hunt did score a supporting role in the prestigious period movie Pride and Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier.

After World War II the grubby, gutter politics of McCarthyism dealt a savage blow to Marsha Hunt’s career…as it did to numerous other Hollywood liberals during that time when it was the fashion de jour in America to go full-throttle after citizens who were merely alleged or implied to be communists (truly a “Dark Age of guilty until proven innocent” witch-hunts!) For a fuller account of Hunt’s story see my earlier blog on this site (June 2014) Marsha Hunt, Lifelong Social Activist: Not your Average Hollywood Role Model .

With her reputation unfairly besmirched (tantamount to no more than implicit guilt by association!), Hunt was punished by being inexorably squeezed out of the Hollywood film mainstream. Potential parts in A-movies disappeared and the public saw her relegated to B-pictures and eventually to television and theatre (few good roles in theatrical movies came her way after 1947, the 1948 film noir Raw Deal and the much later Johnny Got His Gun (1971) were rare exceptions for the Chicago-born actress).

Marsha Hunt today
After being blacklisted by HUAC in 1950 after having made around 50 films since 1935, Hunt only featured in three films during the next eight years [‘Marsha Hunt (actress, born 1917)’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org]. By the Fifties and Sixties Hunt was finding work only easy to find in television – in a minor-note series Peck’s Bad Girl and in numerous guest roles on Zane Grey Theater, The Twilight Zone and so on ad infinitum.

Marsha Hunt: Life lived forwards…
After her semi-retirement in 1960 Hunt stepped up her active involvement in progressive causes including support for same-sex marriage, ending global poverty, raising awareness of climate change and promoting peace in Third World countries [Memos, Roger C. (October 17, 2014). “Honoring Actress – Activist Marsha Hunt on her 97th Birthday!”. Sherman Oaks, California: Patch.com. Archived from the original on August 10, 2017. Retrieved May 14, 2016]

In a series of interviews last week in honour of her 100th birthday Miss Hunt reflected on her career and on the missed stardom, which seemed to have touched her but only lightly. Hunt merely remarked of her Hollywood years that she was grateful for being allowed to be an actress and show her versatility on the screen✳…or as she put it in her characteristically humble, unassuming way, she is “a grateful girl of 100!” [J Kinser, ‘Marsha Hunt at 100: The Actress Recalls the Blacklist, Film Noir and Being Cast in Gone With a The Wind‘, Movie Maker, 13-Oct-2017, www.moviemaker.com].

JE Smith seems to have summed up the essence of Marsha Hunt and the paradoxes in her movie persona and career fairly well in the title of his interview with the centenarian, “American girl, Un-American woman, upstanding centenarian” [JE Smith, ‘Marsha Hunt: American girl, Un-American woman, upstanding centenarian’, Sight & Sound, 17-Oct-2017, www.bfi.org.uk].

Once vilified by HUAC as “Un-American”, Hunt’s longevity and achievements are testimony to all that is good about American society – an authentic patriot but also a defender of freedoms for all citizens – whilst repudiating all that is bad about American society. At the same time we have Hunt’s unceasing activism as a humanitarian concerned for the world as a whole and its future well-being, a tireless advocate for peace and progress, and for a more fair distribution of resources and safeguards for the environment.

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✳ the unstated inference is clear…rather than being factory-made into (an overhyped) star!

Cursed Movies I: Health Hazards of Oz

Cinema, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

The 1939 cinema classic The Wizard of Oz, the movie that launched teenage singer/actress Judy Garland into stardom, has long had a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most ‘cursed’ films.

Many, many things did go wrong on the set, including costs…the MGM musical/fantasy came in over budget at a cost of $2.8 million. This in part reflects The Wizard of Oz’s disjointed trajectory – going through five directors including King Vidor, George Cukor and Richard Thorpe and 14 screenwriters in the course of the production. The movie’s ultimate director Victor Fleming (who also directed the other great Hollywood film of 1939 Gone With The Wind) was widely suspected of Nazi sympathies.

Judy as Dot in Oz
The staggeringly appalling treatment of 17-year-old Judy Garland (Dorothy) would today be seen as out-and-out child abuse, irrespective of whether it was within or without the celebrity world. The film-makers half-starved Judy, limiting her to only one square meal per day, fed her on barbiturates and got her fixed on an 80-a-day cigarette habit. Garland eventually spiralled into a tragic pattern of drug dependency and suicide attempts. [E Power, ‘The Wizard of Oz – Dark side of the rainbow’, Irish Examiner, 15-Sept-2014, www.irishexaminer.com].

Equally alarmingly was the casual disregard of the health and well-being of other cast members as well. Buddy Ebsen (later famous as Jed Clampett in TV’s Beverly Hillbillies), to achieve the silver make-up of his character “The Tinman” was coated in aluminium powder which gave him an allergy and got into his lungs, after two weeks he became seriously unwell and was hospitalised and out of the film✳. His replacement Jack Haley was less exposed to deadly toxins but still contracted a troublesome eye-infection.

Fitting out supporting actress Margaret Hamilton for the role as the “The Wicked Witch of the West” meant painting her skin with green copper, exposing her to a clear carcinogenic risk. Even more perilous, in one hazardous scene Hamilton was nearly burned to death when a pyrotechnics feature went horribly wrong…requiring the actress to be hospitalised for a couple of weeks.

The film’s jinx extended to minor players like the munchkins (small colourfully-garmented characters portrayed predominantly by people with the condition dwarfism). The vertically challenged actors were grossly underpaid (‘Toto’, Dorothy’s dog in the movie was paid more than them!) and consequently they got drunk every night and reportedly ran riot on the set. Even Toto didn’t escape a mishap – one of the supporting actors accidentally stepped on him in a scene breaking the mutt’s paw and necessitating a canine replacement.

In the celebrated poppy field scene Dorothy and other characters get saturated in snow flakes, the only problem was the substitute snow comprised sheets of lethal asbestos![Power] Hollywood regularly used 100 percent industrial-grade chrysotile (white asbestos) in films, in White Christmas (1954) Bing Crosby got it poured all over him! Ray Bolger’s “Scarecrow” straw-filled costume was also lined in asbestos in order to be flame-proof [S Kazan, ‘The Wizard of Oz or The Wizard of Lethal Asbestos Exposure?’, (Kazan, McLaine, Satterley &’Greenwood], www.kazanlaw.com].

The curse for a time seemed to continue post-release. Although The Wizard of Oz is universally celebrated today as a classic of the cinema, it did not meet with immediate acclaim from either the public or critics. These reservations did not start to turn around until the CBS television network reintroduced the movie to the wider public in 1956. In 1989 the US Library of Congress nominated The Wizard of Oz as “the most-viewed motion picture on television syndication” [‘The Wizard of Oz (1939 film)’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org]. Countless scores of viewers of the joyous spectacle of ‘Oz’ over the years would have been blissfully unaware of the unhappy, off-screen events that relentlessly dogged the production.

PostScript: Judy a victim of MGM’s mogul monster
MGM’s systematic abuse and exploitation of Judy Garland emanated from the very top of the studio – MGM head Louis B Mayer. To get the absolute most out of the studio’s new star Garland, Mayer maintained tyrannical control over all aspects of the Wizard of Oz star’s life.

Mayer hooked Garland on a cocktail of drugs, having her fed alternating courses of amphetamines, adrenaline shots and downers like Seconal. And Mayer, to ensure that Judy, away from the studio, kept to the strict diet of coffee, chicken soup and cigs, had a battery of spies reporting back to him on the beleaguered actress’s behaviour [Neil Norman, ‘Dark side of Oz: The exploitation of Judy Garland’, Express, 05-Apr-2010, www.express.co.uk]]

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✳ Ebsen as a result of exposure to the deleterious materials was required to use a respirator for the remainder of his life (he lived to 95)
a mistreatment aided and abetted by Judy’s own mother Ethel who mercilessly drove the early show business career of Garland and her sisters, thinking nothing of feeding the three sisters pep pills to cope with the brutal workload she had burdened them with! [Norman]

The All-American Adolescent according to Two Hollywood Studios: Hardy Vs Aldrich

Cinema, Performing arts, Popular Culture

When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s and 60s I was exposed, like everyone else, to saturation levels of US commercial television. Faced with the novelty of a new and revolutionary form of home entertainment, I clocked up the viewing hours (which turned into thousands of hours). Eventually through trial and error I picked out my favourite American programs, a few gems among the preponderance of TV dross and mediocrity.

Back then I was particularly fond of old black-and-white movies on TV (until 1975 all Australian television was in black-and-white!). Drilling down even deeper, 1940s and 50’s movie serials were highest on the totem of my juvenile television tastes. I lapped up countless viewings (and re-viewings) of the like of Ma and Pa Kettle, Blondie, Batman, Tarzan, Bowery Boys/Dead End Kids, to barely scratch the surface of my childhood obsession.

‘Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary’
As an Antipodean-based “honorary American boy”, a lot of my vicarious existence was channelled through Hollywood’s projection of the typical American teenage boy. MGM had Andy Hardy (played by that pint-sized bundle of energy, Mickey Rooney), whilst over at Paramount, the studio eventually tried to counter Andy’s popularity with Henry Aldrich (portrayed initially and briefly by the over-saccharine Jackie Cooper, but mostly by the perpetually perplexed-looking Jimmy Lydon).

Both screen personas had their measure of humorous escapades in each movie in the series…teenagers Andy and Henry got up much the same thing, they were both likeable, both “got into jams, had romantic vexations, and mischievously interfered in the lives of their older brothers and sisters”, with consequences all of which were at worse ephemeral[1].

Hardy and Aldrich each had his own distinctive and characteristic expressions, these verbal calling cards were often reiterated throughout each movie…Andy Hardy, when in ebullient mood, would chirpily respond to Polly Benedict or to another of his many, simultaneous love interests with “You said it, toots!” Henry Aldrich is universally remembered for the opening exchange with his mother who bellows: “Hen-reeeeeeeeeeeee! Hen-ree Al-drich!”, to which Henry from upstairs would haltingly and tremulously reply, “Com-ing, Mother!”

Once I latched on to Paramount’s counterpoint to the Hardys, the Aldriches, I quickly developed a preference for the new kid on the Hollywood block Henry Aldrich over Andy Hardy. The longer the Andy Hardy/Family sequence went, the more it seemed to wallow in “Gee mum'” sentimentality, with a touch of smug bourgeois self-satisfaction. Andy came from a distinctively middle class American family (his father was a court judge, as the good-intentioned Andy himself aspired to and eventually realised)…Henry seemed more to reside in the world of the working class family, not exactly down-at-heel, but hardly flush with affluence. The Henry movies were a bit more gritty, more down-to-earth and lacking the romanticised and soppy wholesomeness of the Hardy Family sagas.

The first Andy Hardy film was released in 1937, A Family Affair with 15 more following within the decade, plus a less successful ‘reunion’ film in 1958 focusing on Andy’s return to Carvel to take up his father’s old judicial post. The character of Henry Aldrich first surfaced in a Broadway play What a Life in 1938 (playwright: Clifford Goldsmith)…from there in span off into fourteen years of radio (1939-53), four years of television (1949-53), a series of ten movies, and an uncountable number of comic books, musical scores, pin-ups, games, and toys.

Stumbling, bumbling Henry!
The Aldrich movies never reached anywhere near the lofty heights of the Hardy films, neither in the returns from the box office or in the esteem of cinema critics✳. Henry Aldrich movies were either ignored by critics or dismissed as inferior B-movies, merely larks and juvenile fun…contrasting sharply with the symbolic status afforded the Hardy series by MGM, the cinematic embodiment of the “Stars and Stripes”, of “America”[2].

Jeffrey Dennis notes how the respective imaginary ‘worlds’ Andy and Henry inhabit sit poles apart. Carvel, the Hardy home town in small town Idaho, is comfortably ensconced in Middle American suburbia, a peaceful and harmonious realm in which the war (WWII) does not enter. Carvel and the Hardys represent an idyllic family lifestyle, with the films’ message a somewhat preachy reinforcement of solid and wholesome American values[3]. Against the stark realities of the Depression and the drift into global war, fictional Carvel offered the American public a chance to indulge in “feel-good” escapist diversions.

Henry’s home town Centerville, by contrast (located in an unidentified state) is a much more grim, dark and foreboding entity. Reminders of the war constantly swirl around the world of Henry and the Aldrich family and that of he and his best pal Dizzy (in the form of war bonds, war relief funds, rationing, air-raid drills)[4].

‘Henry Aldrich, Boy Scout’
Both boys regularly get themselves embroiled in injudicious teenage troubles but Henry Aldrich’s conundrums have the more serious consequences…whilst Andy at his incautious worse may be “fined for driving without a licence, but Henry is threatened with prison, juvenile hall, and a mental asylum”[5]. And Hardy’s often foolish escapades, unlike Aldrich’s, never amount to life-threatening situations.

Critics have also drawn attention to differences in how each screen teenager viewed the perennial adolescent boy issue of “girl trouble”. Whilst the easily love-struck Andy Hardy was unequivocally a dedicated girl-chaser most of the time, Henry Aldrich expressed a more ambivalent attitude towards the fairer sex: “Wimmen – they bore me!”, Henry exclaims in Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour[6]. Teenage Henry is reticence or seemingly indifferent to girls, preferring to spend time messing about with best mate Dizzy. Rather than being a manifestation of latent homosexuality, Henry with his simplified approach to life, most of the time just finds girls too complicated, not worth all the fuss and bother.

American youth in the Andy Hardy and Henry Aldrich films were depicted humorously, often with affectionate nostalgia and occasionally condescendingly. At the same time, both series revolving round the comical misadventures of American teenage boys were a window on the beginnings of a distinct adolescent sub-culture[7], which would take further shape in the years following WWII with the “Rebel Without a Cause” youth generation.

________________________________________________________________
✳ in 1939 Mickey Rooney was the number one box office star in American films, a position he retained for the following three years, Source: ‘Top Box Office Stars: 1932-1939 (Part 1)’, (Classic Film Guru), https://classicfilmguru.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/the-box-office-stars-1932-to-1939-part-1/

[1] RJ Bresler, Us Vs Them: American Political and Cultural Conflict from WWII to Watergate (2000)
[2] JP Dennis, We Boys Together: Teenagers in Love Before Girl-craziness (2007)
[3] in 1943 the film series was awarded a special Oscar for “achievement in portraying the American way of life”, Timothy Shary, Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen” (2005)
[4] Dennis, op.cit.
[5] ibid.
[6] RB Armstrong & MW Armstrong, Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series (2009)
[7] PC Rollins, The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past (2004)

Gainsborough Studios, Islington’s Melodramas, Costumers and Comedies: Mergers, Takeovers, Closure

Cinema, Performing arts, Popular Culture

Where the Gainsborough Pictures/Islington Studios once stood (in Hoxton, North London), today sits blocks of luxury flats built in 2004. As a token gesture the name ‘Gainsborough’ remains on the units’ facade but the only other indicator that it is the site of a former film studio is a 6.5m high courtyard sculpture of Alfred Hitchcock whose first exposure to the movie industry was at Islington … the work of art enigmatically depicting ‘Hitch’ as a gigantic head❈.

In the course of the twentieth century, the site, when it wasn’t a centre of feature film production, had something of a checkered existence. The original building started off as an electrical power station for the East London rail line, circa 1900. When Gainsborough Pictures’ film production ended there around 1949, the premises had a broad range of commercial and community incarnations for the rest of the century, including being a whiskey store, a carpet warehouse and an avant-garde theatre[1]. By the time it was chosen as a site for the apartments that occupy it today, the surviving buildings had taken on a very derelict appearance.

Gainsborough Studios, Hoxton, N1 (Photo: Patrick George Callaghan)
The film company’s story at Hoxton/Islington began just after the Great War when the American movie giant Famous Players-Lasky acquired it in 1919 for its British production arm. Lasky refurbed the run-down power plant, turning it into state-of-the-art film studios. Islington, with the most technical advanced studios in the UK, was also Britain’s most iconic film studios. Features included a scene dock, a large tank for filming underwater scenes and an anti-fog heating system (indispensable for notoriously foggy London). Such super-de luxe facilities earned Islington Studios nicknames like “Hollywood by the Canal” and “Los Islington” [2].

Cutts and Hitchcock: Islington Silents
Islington Studios commenced making films in 1920 … the creative figure most associated with the studio’s early silent productions was Graham Cutts, who directed a string of 1920s Gainsborough films – of these the most acclaimed were Women to Women (1923) and The Rat (1925). Cutts was mentor to the young Alfred Hitchcock … ‘Hitch’ got his start at Islington as a writer of signs for movies before rising to become the older director’s assistant in several Cutts films. Fellow director AV Bramble went so far to say of Cutts’ directorial contribution, that Gainsborough Pictures “had been built on the back of his work”[3]. The success of The Rat owed much to its star, Ivor Novello, who was a fan magnet (intentionally cast) in the Rudolf Valentino mould. As 1920s Britain’s most popular matinée idol Novello helped lift the profile (and profit sheet) of Gainsborough Studios.

The Balcon years
The American Lasky company didn’t persist with the London venture, selling the studios to ‘kingpin’ British producer Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough Pictures◙ in 1924. Balcon continued the Hollywood former owner’s practice of importing US stars (such as Mae Marsh and Dorothy Gish) to bolster Gainsborough’s productions, but he also pursued a strategy aimed at competing with the burgeoning American influence in the British industry after the war. Balcon made deals with US and German film companies to allow Islington to distribute and finance its own films. Balcon nurtured Hitchcock’s development as a film-maker, despatching him to Germany to work as an assistant on a UFA film in Berlin. Hitchcock’s German influence was evident in Gainsborough’s The Lodger (1927), the best example of British expressionism in silent films[4].

In 1927 Balcon’s company merged Gainsborough with the larger Gaumont-British film co which operated from its Lime Grove Studios in Shepherd’s Bush (West London). Many Gainsborough Pictures productions were made at Lime Grove (in addition to those made at Islington). Lime Grove Studios produced the ‘quality’ films, whereas the Gainsborough Studio produced mainly ‘B’ movies (especially low-budget crime) and melodramas[5]. The core of Hitchcock’s classic 1930s espionage/mysteries (such as The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage and The 39 Steps) were made by Gaumont at Lime Grove.

Edward Black and the costume melodramas
After Gaumont went into bankruptcy Balcon left Gaumont in 1936 for MGM-British (and later Ealing Studios). Gaumont-British ceased production for several years but Gainsborough was saved by a rescue package put together by CM Woolf and J Arthur Rank (partners of General Film Distributors)[6]. From the late thirties producer Edward Black came to Gaumont/Gainsborough and the subsequent type of productions the studios made reflected Black’s “unerring sense of British popular taste”. One of his earliest successes was with Bank Holiday (1938), directed by Carol Reed and Margaret Lockwood, soon to become Britain’s leading screen actress回. Black used ex-Music Hall performers like Will Hays and Arthur Askey for Islington’s light comedies. Gainsborough Pictures also afforded opportunities to the versatile Launder and Gilliat writer-director team to showcase their collaborative skills.

In the war years following, Black combined with screenwriter RJ Minney to produce a series of costume melodramas at Gainsborough, which have been described as being “visually extravagant and morally ambivalent”. Minney and Black also produced comedies and modern-dress melodramas for Gainsborough … the first and most famous of the Studio’s period costume melodramas was The Man in Grey (1943), a box-office winner with an overtly escapist formula to distract people from the tribulations of the world war[7].

Postwar: Rank and the Boxes
In 1946 the powerful Rank Organisation acquired full control of Gainsborough Pictures, leading to an exodus of its main creative figures, including Black and Minney, and its pre-Rank takeover head of production Maurice Ostrer. J Arthur Rank choose one-time self defined “hack journalist” Sydney Box to head up the Studios’ productions. Box’s collaborators, his wife, writer and director, Muriel and his sister, producer Betty, also came on board[8]. Sydney Box in his time at Gainsborough churned out films at a very steady rate of knots – 36※ all up over three years of managing Gainsborough productions. Under Sydney Box the Studio tackled a mix of genres with a focus on melodramas, thrillers and light comedies[9].

‘The Huggetts Abroad’, last entry in the Huggetts series
Gainsborough Pictures in the austere economic climate after the war exhibited an interest in ‘social’ films with a topical appeal. Employing the skills he honed as a documentarist, Sydney also commissioned films which explored a range of issues – no doubt with Muriel’s guiding influence. These included child adoption, juvenile delinquency, displaced persons, leisure pursuits. The light comedies, usually with Betty E Box as producer, remained among the most popular of Gainborough’s offerings, eg, Miranda (1948) (a romantic diversion about a mermaid out of her environment), Holiday Camp (1947) (which spawned a light-hearted series of sequels about the Huggett family – the amusing adventures and misadventures of a typical working class London family in the late 1940s (the workman-like cast included 1960s English pop star Petula Clark)[10].

Gainsborough – closing act
J Arthur Rank permanently shut down production at both Hoxton (Gainsborough) and Shepherd’s Bush (Lime Grove) in 1949, apparently because he was unhappy with the performance of both London studios. All films made by Rank Organisation after 1949 were concentrated at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire[11]. The last feature released under the Gainsborough banner was Trio (1950), an anthology film co-directed by the Islington regular Ken Annakin.

PostScript 1: the Gainsborough logo
All Gainsborough films open with the shot of an elegant, feather-hatted woman in Georgian period costume, enclosed within an ornate oval frame. The woman (portrayed by actress Glennis Lorimer) slowly turns and smiles at the camera, an opening feature as visually distinctive as Rank’s iconic strongman banging the gong. The shot of Lorimer was based on the famous 1785 portrait of Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough.

PostScript 2: the studio fire traps of the early ‘talkies’
By the advent of sound pictures Gainsborough’s Islington Studios were certainly among the most technologically advanced in Britain … able to adapt scenes into everything from a mad professor’s lab to a railway station to an 18th century manor house to a mermaid’s lair. But the studios at that time were inherently dangerous places – celluloid was highly inflammable, as was carbon arc lights. Sound-proofing studios usually required covering the entire building with thick blankets, which was virtually tantamount to inviting a fire! The Gainsborough Studios burnt to the ground in 1930, and the same fate befell the studios at Twickenham and Elstree. Such was the sense of threat that some studios maintained their own in-house fire brigades[12].

‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿
❈ there is also a plaque on one of the unit complexes commemorating the film studios
◙ the names ‘Islington’ and ‘Gainsborough’ have tended to be used interchangeably in describing the Poole Street studios
through the vertical integration of the film biz in the UK and elsewhere, Hollywood was maintaining an economic and cultural dominance of the industry
回 other leading 1940s British stars of Gainsborough pictures included Patricia Roc, Phyllis Calvert, James Mason and Stewart Granger
※ this in fact was the target J Arthur Rank had set (12 feature films a year) as a condition of Sydney Box’s appointment

[1] Steve Rose, ‘Where the lady vanished’, The Guardian, (16-Jan-2001), www.theguardian.com
[2] Gary Chapman, London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio’s Silent Years, (2014); LN Ede, ‘Designing the Silent British Film’, in IQ Hunter, L Porter & J Smith (Eds), Routledge Companion to British Cinema History, (2017)
[3] Rachel Low, The History of British Film: Vol 1V, 1918-1929, (1997)
[4] Geoffrey Macnab, Searching for Stars: Stardom and Screen Acting in British Cinema, (2000)
[5] ‘Gaumont British Picture Corporation Limited’, (The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki), http://the.hitchcock.zone. Often described in the trade as “quota-quickies” (Michael Powell’s term)
[6] Ede, op.cit.
[7] B McFarlane (Ed), The Encyclopedia of British Cinema – Fourth Edition, (2016)
[8] The Boxes started their careers in cinema with Verity Films, making war-time propaganda films and documentaries. Behind-the-camera roles in the industry in those days was very much a “man’s world”, and no easy path to tread for women … especially Muriel (when directing films), Rachel Cooke, ‘Power women of the 1950s: Muriel and Betty Box’, The Guardian, 3-October 2013, www.theguardian.com
[9] A Spicer, Sydney Box, (2006)
[10] ibid.
[11] ‘Gainsborough pictures’, Wikipedia, http://wikipedia.org.
[12] Rose, loc.cit.; Geoffrey Macnab, ‘The death-trap London studio that time forgot: Gainsborough Studios’, The Independent, 24-Jun-1999, www.independent.co.uk