Friday, August 24, 2018

The Russell Brothers Circus Scrapbook

With the American Circus a dying breed, it warms my heart to see that there are a number of good folks who are taking the time to dig into archives, newspaper files and track down family relatives to compile reference guides documenting and preserving the big top. Keith Webb and Joseph F. Laredo recently published The Russell Brothers Circus Scrapbook with dozens of rare and previously unpublished photographs. 

Little did I know that the circus was featured in the 1942 Alfred Hitchcock suspense classic, Saboteur, the great animal trainer Clyde Beatty would join forces with the Russell Brothers Circus, and that silver screen cowboys made professional appearances over the years: including Hoot Gibson, Reb Russel, and a brief appearance by Ken Maynard.

Hollywood celebrities were also part of the program from time to time, often to promote their motion-pictures. The circus sometimes crept into the participation of film production. The elephants in the circus were transported to the Iverson Movie Ranch for Tarzan's New York Adventure. Johnny Sheffield, known as "Bomba, the Jungle Boy," was among the endless parade of movie personalities dining in the Russell Brothers cook hour on tour, along with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Gene Tierney, and others. Maureen O'Hara apparently possessed a tomboy streak so she took to the animals. There is a story about John Barrymore drinking too much at the circus, and how the circus helped with the war cause during the Second World War.

The book is available at www.russellbrotherscircus.com

Friday, August 17, 2018

Mae West: Between the Covers (Book Review)

"In my long and colorful career, one thing stands out: I have been misunderstood."
           -- Mae West

Mae West: Between the Covers, edited by Michael Gregg Michaud, is not a biography of Mae West though first impression from the outside was that this was a 540-page biography. I welcome a biography that can dig up more facts than the prior volumes but this is not that type of book.

The name Mae West conjures up a sex symbol whose status diminished as a result of the Hayes Code,  but few remember that she broke box office records, earned an Oscar nomination for "Best Picture" with She Done Him Wrong, and fought against William Randolph Hearst who insisted his editors avoid mention of her name in his newspapers. In private, she was different from her screen counterparts: he led a quiet, moral life. It was West herself who confessed, "I am a showman and I know that the public wants sex in their entertainment, and I give it to them." 

It is this last remark that makes up the majority of the book -- reprints of vintage magazine articles of the times, chronicling her career as it was documented on the newsstands beginning with an article from Liberty magazine, August 10, 1927. As most serious scholars and historians will attest, many articles in magazines and newspapers of the times were fluff pieces -- with quotes and information provided by the movie studios and their publicity departments. In short, we take what was on the printed page with a grain of salt. 

The earliest articles in this book provide interesting information on the stage plays she starred and co-starred, including one from 1929 that appeared in the International Police Bugle, printed and circulated in Detroit, Michigan. The year of 1933 featured numerous articles warning readers to be prepared for the Mae West that was coming to a theater near them, with such headlines as "Broadway's Most Daring Actress Drops Into Hollywood" and "Look Out! Here's Mae West!"

The supposed daring jewel heist from which Mae West was a victim is documented in the January 1933 issue of Movie Classic, Lew Garvey's fascinating article "I Fired Mae West for Doing the Shimmy," and "Mae West's Personal Maid Tells All" from January 1934 verified she was headline news of the time. Of amusement was a rash of articles from late 1933 and early 1934 suggesting sh knew more about sex than the average reader, with such articles as "Sex is Beautiful, Mae West Sex-plains It All," "Mae West Tells How to Handle Men," "Mae West Discusses Men and Sex Appeal" and "It's the Caveman Within Us Calling for Mae" that suggest she would say almost anything to hype her latest motion-picture.

For a fan of old-time radio, such as myself, the March 1934 issue of Radio Stars featured "Can Mae West Beat the Radio JINX?" The articles venture to May 1977 when After Dark printed an article about her personal and screen career.

The book is a fascinating and entertaining read. If you love reading those old magazine articles from the 1930s and 1940s, you will enjoy this book. If I had but one complaint... there is no index which would have been great when someone like me wants to look up Cary Grant or Edgar Bergen to see how her name was reported alongside those personalities.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Christopher Robin (2018): Pooh has Pathos

In an era where superheroes destroy half of Manhattan in an effort to save the human race from an alien invasion, and young children cheer on as Jedi knights duel lightsabers on the silver screen, Christopher Robinmay be Disney's attempt to close down the Winnie the Pooh franchise to make way for more promising marketing potential. Christopher Robinwill not even come close in box office dollars compared to Soloor The Avengers: Infinity War, and one has to wonder if this was the studio's attempt to reboot a franchise that was destined to make way for Intergalactic fisticuffs. 

There are numerous movies that fall into a genre that has yet to be defined: husbands and fathers who are too busy with work to focus on the real importance of living. An element of fantasy creates intervention with the curmudgeon, long enough for them to catch a glimpse in the mirror and make amends. James Caan in Elf, Robin Williams in Hookand even James Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life fall into this category. The latest entry in the Disney live-action film franchise based on lovable animated cartoon characters is Christopher Robin, and is not a motion-picture for children. The first third of the movie is so depressing that one almost wondered what type of storytelling was attempted. But a film addressing the psychological exploration of a man's mind during trial and tribulation would have been welcome had the film stayed on course.

The stories of Winnie the Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Woods was clearly the imagination of a nine-year-old boy who, with no friends to play with, kept himself preoccupied with fairytale creatures that existed only as stuffed toys. As Robin grew up and forgot about his friends, they ceased to exist. After being reminded of Pooh through a cartoonish drawing he made as a child, Pooh wakes to find himself alone in the woods -- and sets out to find his friends. As Robin's boyhood memories come back to him, so do Tigger, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, Kanga and Roo. A number of quick cuts and questionable "displacement" of real-life artifacts establish that Pooh and friends are mere fantasy in the mind of Robin. One momentarily questions whether Christopher Robin (played by Ewan McGregor) is suffering from a breakdown as a result of a major deadline due Monday at work.

Over the years there have been motion-pictures centering on fantasy cartoon characters who get sucked into our world, defined as "the real world," establishing a difference between the two worlds, and vice versa. (Fat AlbertThe Smurfsand others come to mind.) They were dreadful because the suspension of disbelief is difficult to maintain with celluloid. Thankfully the computer graphics for Winnie the Pooh and friends is magnificent; acting by everyone in the cast is satisfactory under the circumstances. But asking people in the real world to interact with fictional characters during the final third of the movie is where the film, as depressing as it might have been up to that point, is flawed. Perhaps there had to be a Disney-esque ending to this movie... but I suspect the resolution, though somewhat expected in this genre, could have been applied without the whimsical humor.

Until the recent Star Wars and Marvel acquisitions, Winnie the Pooh was the second highest-grossing merchandise for the Walt Disney Company (with Mickey Mouse number one). As Winnie the Pooh himself says in the film, "I would have liked it to go on for a while longer." If this be Pooh's swan song, this would be a satisfactory final chapter.  

Friday, August 3, 2018

Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four

In 1994, Roger Corman produced a low-budget movie based on Marvel's popular comic book series, The Fantastic Four, starring Alex Hyde-White, Jay Underwood, Rebecca Staab and Michael Bailey Smith. This marked the first of what would be four live action renditions. Regardless of the fact that the three movies to follow had huge million-dollar budgets, fan boys at comic cons generally agree that the 1994 film is perhaps the best of them. Yet, the Roger Corman film was never released theatrically in theaters, commercially on VHS or DVD, and continues to sit on the shelves gathering dust. In fact, the only way anyone can watch the movie is to buy a VHS or DVD bootleg. Even worse is the fact that the movie was produced with no true intention to release the film - ever!

In the mid-1980s, German film producers, Constantin Films, bought the screen rights from Marvel Comics for an initial $250,000. Among the terms of the contract was that the studio had to produce a movie within ten years or the screen rights would revert back to Marvel. Just before the ten-year option ran out, and in order to meet the terms of the contract, executives at Constantin hired Roger Corman and hurriedly put this film into production. According to the story, executives at Marvel were not impressed at the low-budget results and in order to avoid damaging the brand the studio quietly bought the few existing film prints and negatives from Constantin Films to avoid the possibility of a theatrical or video release. Both Roger Corman (who produced the film), director Oley Sassone and the cast and crew of the film were not consulted or informed of this move, as there were indeed plans in place for a small theatrical release. (A movie trailer was made with this in mind.)

Constantin Films was able to maintain another ten-year option on the screen rights, secured funding from 20th-Century Fox, and the big budget 2005 version was the end result. A 2007 sequel and a terrible 2015 reboot followed.


While the movie was a means to tap dance around a contractual clause, fan boys today have managed to secure a primitive form or preservation by mass duplicating copies of the 1994 movie on VHS and DVD. It is estimated that every fan of The Fantastic Four, across the country, have a copy of this movie in their collection. (I had the good fortune to watch the movie at a fan gathering in Michigan a number of years ago.) If executives at Marvel or Constantin wanted to keep the movie locked away, their plan failed. To believe the film could be suppressed at this point would be futile. 

So you can imagine my pleasure when I learned that two years ago director Marty Langford produced an 84-minute documentary titled Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four, providing the view from the ground of what it was like to pour your heart and hopes into something that was never going to be seen by the general public. Practically every actor, writer, producer, director, stunt man and crew technician was approached and interviewed for commentary, providing background into the film that today you can find easily on YouTube. It is pop culture documentaries like these that I find enjoyable. Now available on DVD through Amazon.com, I recommend this to anyone who loved the 1994 Roger Corman gem.