Friday, July 10, 2020

The 1943 INFORMATION PLEASE War Bond Tour

In November of 1942, it was publicly reported that Information, Please was going on tour for the War Savings Staff of the Treasury Department. Never seen outside New York except for the movie versions, the program visited cities along the eastern seaboard in an ambitious attempt by its creator and owner, Dan Golenpaul, to raise several million dollars for the war effort. The first stop was Symphony Hall, Boston, on December 4, 1942, where it was hoped that at least $1,500,000 would be realized.

The three regulars, Levant, Adams and Kieran, and their presiding officer Fadiman, participated on the tour, which for starters was limited to one out-of-town appearance a month. According to a press release, a visit to Philadelphia was scheduled in January of 1943 and, if all went well, future visits in Baltimore, Washington, Hartford and perhaps Rochester or Buffalo.

Dan Golenpaul, who was meeting the expenses of the tour, said that tickets would be priced from a $25 Bond for balcony seats to perhaps as high as $50,000 for an aisle chair in Row A. In Boston, the ticket distribution would be handled by the local War Savings Staff. The day before the Friday broadcast, Adams, Kieran and Levant were on hand for a little personal bond selling at strategic points in Boston.

Aside from the regular broadcast, bond buyers would see the usual “warm-up” period of questions before the formal program and, in addition, Adams and Kieran, who were considered “wonderful material for vaudeville” by Golenpaul, would do a little extra business. Levant also addressed himself at the piano. Golenpaul was not inclined to reveal the names of guest experts far enough in advance for local areas to advertise, pending their acceptance of invitations to participate.

Golenpaul’s initial intention of selling $1,500,000 worth in bonds was realized by their second visit. The January 9, 1943 issue of the New York Times reported: “Philadelphia, Jan. 8 – Thirty-four hundred persons who crowded the Academy of Music tonight to hear the Information, Please radio program, now on tour, bought a total of $6,314,123 in war savings bonds. The experts of the show were joined by Representative Will Rogers, Jr. of California, son of the humorist.” Evidently the war bond drive was extremely successful, and Golenpaul extended his tour along the East Coast for the rest of the 1943 calendar year.

For the broadcast of June 28, 1943, Chicago got its first look at Information, Please in action. The 3,500 or so people who filled all but a couple of the seats in the giant Civic Opera House enjoyed the radio experts’ performance to the maximum, and went home feeling that the price of admission—a war bond from $50 to $5,000 in denomination—had been well-spent in more ways than one. The total war bond “take” for this trip was $6,818,107.

Richard K. Bellamy, radio editor of the Milwaukee Journal, was in the audience to get a first look and report on the visual aspect – the part a radio audience could not get at home. “As a radio show this one is very smartly staged,” Bellamy wrote. “Even to the lone feminine aspect, a lovely, anonymous girl with a rose in her hair who sang several snatches to illustrate a song question on the broadcast. First Levant played some Gershwin on the piano with professional skill. Then Kieran arose, strapped on an accordion and slaughtered ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry’ (we think that’s what it was) as cruelly as any tavern player has ever slaughtered it. He grinned from ear to ear all the while, and the crowd loved him. Adams put a pencil in his teeth and knocked off an unidentified melody on that crude instrument with his fingers. Kieran and [Walter] Yust closed the performance with a piano duet, ‘Chopsticks.’ It’s amazing how little it takes to win over 3,500 people. At 9:15 Fadiman started asking some preliminary questions to get the board into the swing of things. He warned the audience: ‘You, the cream of Chicago, will know the answers before these lugs up here on the stage. But please don’t coach them.’ Even during the broadcast Fadiman seemed perfectly relaxed, always waiting, like a cat, for an opening. He seizes openings lightning fast and without any visible effort.”

In Chicago, Golenpaul played the role of director with perfection. He often sat with Fadiman, whispering occasional comments, and once or twice he crossed to the other table and nudged Yust a little closer to the microphone. He had decreed, “No photographers at the broadcast.” Apparently his rule was law because no pictures were taken.

“We did a lot of travelling with Information, Please,” recalled Oscar Levant, “and we were celebrities wherever we went. In Hartford, we dined at the governor’s mansion. Fadiman sometimes wrote the speeches with which the dignitaries welcomed us. In Cleveland, Senator Lausche – the alleged Democrat who was to the right of Goldwater – was the mayor and greeted us. In Toronto, Lester Pearson made a speech, presented us with gifts, and thousands of crack troops paraded in front of us in tribute. It was mighty flattering but I was embarrassed. I didn’t think we rated that.” 

On September 27, 1943, Information, Please originated from the stage of the Mosque Theatre in Newark, New Jersey, with two very special guests: Vice President of the United States Henry A. Wallace and Representative James W. Fulbright of Arkansas. Exactly $277,398,975 in war bonds were sold that evening as a result. $275 million dollars of the total came from a group of local business concerns. V.P. Wallace said that the “common man” was buying 50 percent more bonds in 1943 compared to 1942.


Photo courtesy of Richard Glazier (www.richardglazier.com)

“And he is going to do still better,” he added. “He must do better so as to put our armies into Berlin and Tokyo as soon as possible. He must be better if we are to have a stable peace without inflation.” Asked by reporters after the broadcast what he had meant by his reference to a “partial alliance,” Henry A. Wallace laughed and said, “You’ll have to figure that one out for yourself.” The Vice President, incidentally, was to have appeared as a guest on the quiz program, but he shuddered at the prospect and took no part in it other than to give a brief talk during the opening minutes. Representative Fulbright substituted for him in the question-and-answer period. Clifton Fadiman announced that the war bond total had been contributed by 3,277 people for the broadcast, all of whom bought bonds ranging from $50 to $5,000 to gain audience admission to the broadcast.

For more information about the radio program, visit the Information, Please page on www.MartinGrams.com

Thursday, June 25, 2020

LAUREL & HARDY: THE DEFINITIVE RESTORATIONS

Fans of slapstick comedies need no introduction to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Prior to emerging as a team, both actors had well-established film careers. Laurel had appeared in over 50 films as an actor (while also working as a writer and director), while Hardy had been in more than 250 productions. The two comedians had previously worked together as cast members on the film "The Lucky Dog" in 1921. However, they were not a comedy team at that time and it was not until 1926 that they appeared in a short movie together, when both separately signed contracts with the Hal Roach film studio. From that day forward, the two comedians performed magic on the silver screen.

Over the years they worked as a team in 107 films, starring in 32 short silent films, 40 short sound films, and 23 full-length feature films. They also made 12 guest or cameo appearances, including the "Galaxy of Stars" promotional film of 1936, promotional film shorts and a number of radio and television appearances. It seems over the past decade there has been no shortage of archival discoveries regarding their career and Randy Skretvedt wrote what has become the Bible for all things Laurel and Hardy. (Click here for a review of his book.) Their films have been released (and re-released) under many labels on VHS and DVD, and on many occasions repetition was justified with improved print transfers. As a result, any die-hard of the comedians can easily spend hundreds of dollars and own at least one copy of every existing film short and motion-picture they boys appeared in. But now we have something awesome to look forward to.

Earlier this month the LAUREL & HARDY: THE DEFINITIVE RESTORATIONS was released on DVD and Bluray, with full restorations in 2K and 4K of two feature films and 17 film shorts. Stan and Ollie never looked or sounded better. Restoration projects from UCLA and the Library of Congress are included, from 35mm archival prints.

Among the highlights are more than 2,500 rare photographs, posters and scans of archival studio files. Commentaries from Randy Skretvedt and Richard W. Bannister's are included. Over eight hours of bonus extras, film and archival audio interviews with those who worked with Laurel and Hardy, isolated music tracks, alternate soundtracks, movie trailers and -- get this -- for the first time ever the video debut of the nearly complete "Battle of the Century," which was available on home video only as a three-minute excerpt. It is this film short that highlights this DVD/Bluray set and after watching the film it became apparent that the legendary pie-fight sequence was not three minutes in length, but five. I knew that pie fight sequence by heart and discovered that Robert Youngson trimmed a few seconds here and there to speed up the action of that pie fight. 

This review will not go into detail regarding comparison of the picture and sound quality to prior DVD releases. (There is no point.) The picture and sound in this set is far superior to prior releases and the term "definitive restorations" is understated. "Hog Wild," for example, was taken from a full-aperture source and provides less cropping and more screen image area than any prior release. "The Music Box," that classic film short with Laurel and Hardy attempting to deliver a piano up a lengthy flight of steps, was taken from first-generation "pre-mix" elements and the detail level is amazing.  "The Chimp" was almost in disrepair and for a while it appeared we would all have to live with an inferior print transfer from prior releases but a surprise discovery of a fine-grain master positive now provides a superior rendition.

"Sons of the Desert" was released at least a half dozen times but each release contained a slightly inferior rendition from severely cropped to added music and fade-ins/fade-outs for commercial breaks for a TV print. This new release is far superior. Not only is the classic full frame but there are extended scenes never seen since 1933. 

As with the best of DVD releases, there will always be critics. Some nit-pickers might even count the grains from the film reels and question whether this new release is worth the price.  With a film short not available anywhere else, superior quality not available in other DVD/Bluray releases and tons of extras, take my word for it. Buy this set. Your support will also cast a vote and send a message: we need a volume two. While fans might debate over the top ten Laurel and Hardy film shorts and movies, I would like to state that the best of their films are contained and they never looked better. If you do not have any Laurel and Hardy DVDs in your collection, this is the one you want to start with. 

You can purchased your copy direct here:

Friday, June 19, 2020

Gone With the Wind Returns to HBO Max

After a brief furlough, executives for HBO Max, the new streaming service designed to compete against the new Disney Plus streaming service, have announced that Gone with the Wind is returning to the lineup. More than a week ago an announcement was made that the 1939 blockbuster (considered one of the 100 greatest movies ever made) was under scrutiny by folks who felt the film was promoting the benefits of slavery. Sadly, social media blew up with comments from both sides (tho, to be fair, more than 90 percent of the comments were in defense of the movie) and what I was shocked about more than anything was the misinformation that was circulating like wildfire. 

Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind

It was apparent (from one perspective) that most of the complaints on social media from people complaining against the film never even saw it. Hattie McDaniel, a talented African American who played the role of "Mammy," ultimately became the first African-American to be nominated for, and win, an Academy Award. But, according to one comment on Facebook, "Hattie McDaniel was just interviewed last week and said she would like to fling the Oscar back," unaware that McDaniel passed away in 1952. Another comment on Facebook remarked: "Gone with the Wind features negative cartoon stereotypes that are insulting to black people, especially Brer Bear and Brer Fox." (Someone should have told that person that Gone with the Wind  has no cartoons and that Brer Bear and Brer Fox are animated characters of another motion-picture.)

I also found it alarming that most of the news reports got the facts incorrect. The majority headlined that Gone With the Wind was banned from HBO Max permanently, or that the movie was banned altogether from broadcasting. Amazon.com sold out of Gone With the Wind, in all formats, within 24 hours as if customers feared they would never have a copy to watch ever again.

First of all: Nobody "banned" the 1939 Hollywood landmark movie. You can still watch the movie on DVD and Bluray, it will continue to air annually on Turner Classic Movies, and continue to be screened over Google Play, Vudu, iTunes and Amazon Prime.

Second, what HBO Max clearly stated (and such factoid was overlooked) was that the company was temporarily removing it from streaming and would bring it back with a special filmed introduction explaining the film's historical significance. "These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible," a spokesperson said. "It will return with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions." This is not uncommon as many motion-pictures and vintage cartoons contain an on-screen disclaimer, or a disclaimer on the DVD packaging, reminding people that there might be some material offensive to others but for historical reasons the films remain intact and unaltered.

Jacqueline Stewart of Turner Classic Movies

So, for the record, the film was never banned on any permanent level. It was removed temporarily so that Jacqueline Stewart of the University of Chicago Turner Classic Movies could film a special introduction. Let us be honest: many of today's movies and TV shows have far worse material than Gone With the Wind, and frankly, anyone can find a reason to ban any movie (made yesterday or today) if it does not meet up to the Ozzie and Harriet standards. So if you meet someone who says that Gone With the Wind was banned altogether from all platforms, you can correct them and help stop the spread of misinformation.