Vale Bill Collins: The Man Who Brought Australia ‘The Golden Years Of Hollywood’

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It’s been some time since I’ve written, being deeply depressed and despondent regarding writing and the lack of response and interest that writers usually face. I’m sure those of you are reading this and write know what I’m talking about. At the point of almost giving up, I find myself looking back to a man who introduced and nurtured a love for classic film to generations of Australians after he passed away recently.

His passing offered a chance and moment of retrospect, in being reminded of why I fell in love with classic film in the first place; and why I shouldn’t give up writing about classic film.

Below is a far overdue tribute to Australia’s ‘Mr Movies’ Bill Collins who passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 84 on June 21stthis year.

Recently, classic film fans in Australia and indeed many Australians who grew up watching TV from the 60s through to the mid 90s, were saddened by the passing of one of television’s most beloved celebrities. He was not a famous actor or director, but few knew cinema like he did. He was not a singer or musician, yet he loved musicals, and few would have had the record collection he owned. He was not a talk show host, yet he interviewed many great actors, actresses and film-makers. He did something which seemed fairly basic and unimportant on the surface – he introduced films on television. Yet nobody could equal what he did and the fact that we will no longer see him do it, is a great loss to fans of classic film. They called him ‘Mr. Movies’ and his name was Bill Collins.

Bill Collins was famous on Australian television for the burning passion, incredible knowledge and deeply informative introductions to the classic films that he presented on Australia television.  Trained as an English teacher, Collins was a man with a passion for literature and theatre and taught in high schools in Sydney’s inner-west during the early to mid-60s. Always the great film fan, Collins was already writing film reviews in the 1960s before starting with the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission), which is the Australian equivalent of the BBC or Canada’s CBC. From this point on, Bill Collins movie presentation career never looked back and whilst he was no longer in the classroom, he would remain a passionate teacher and we were happy to be students as we learned about the films he was presenting.

In the days before Pay-TV (cable to American readers), videos, DVDs and online streaming, Bill Collins was one of the most important presenters of classic film. He would work across a number of Australian television stations. But he really found home at Channel 10 in 1980, where he reached a national audience every Saturday night on ‘Bill Collins Golden Years Of Hollywood’ for nearly 15 years.

Saturday nights on Channel 10 were a ratings winner. As the song ‘That’s Entertainment’ began and a montage of Hollywood images played, families across Australia settled in to hear and see ‘Mr. Movies’ introduce the first film of a double feature from the classic era. Collins would give background to the key players, the artwork from his incredible collection of posters and lobby cards and discuss almost every element of production from the direction to the musical score. And of course, he also shared some juicy and fascinating gossip. His incredible knowledge was matched by an oft-described over the top manner which a few criticised as being saccharine and even over-compensatory. Cinephiles would also criticise Collins for his overt nostalgia and the lack of distance from a film needed to provide a more focused and balanced critique. But nobody could deny his passion and love for film.

Collins was also an extremely busy presenter. Whilst Saturday night’s program was the main event and jewel in the crown, Collins would also present Saturday and Sunday afternoon films, late Friday night film noir classics and would continue to present films from the modern era on regional TV stations across Australia. Despite the charge that he was too kind to the films he presented, the truth is that Collins could often be scathing and honest in his assessment. He was particularly brutal towards the 1984 remake of The Razor’s Edge with Bill Murray. And I can still remember his controlled yet poor assessment of First Blood, which he presented on WIN’s Sunday night film (the regional station in our area).  

He could be imperious, demanding that we watch the film and declaring that it was impossible not to love the film. There was certainly a powerfully nostalgic theme running through the whole package and persona of Bill Collins – but that is why he was so loved as well. It was a very personal approach that Bill Collins offered as he leaned forward as if speaking only to you as an individual and bringing his teacher-like persona into your living room. The literary background to the man was also revealed through his discussion of the book of the film, often a beautiful edition again from his own private collection. And being a lover and aficionado of the musical (and music in general), he would usually show a copy of the soundtrack as well, which would be part of his extensive collection of books, albums, film posters and other memorabilia.

What was particularly impressive about the man was that he presented with no script and no auto-cue. Every line Bill Collins delivered was “off the cuff”, which added to the intimate nature of his connection with the audience. We would often be told (or rather ‘ordered’) that we ‘could not help but love this film’. And often he was right.

Bill Collins noted that by the early to mid 1990s, something was changing in television and the long-established formats, as well as the personnel. Video had been around a while (and there was even a Bill Collins Classic Series!) but the advent of Pay-TV would change the face of Australian television permanently. But that wasn’t the end of Bill Collins, with the man moving to the newly formed Fox Classics. To the credit of the bosses at Pay-TV, they let Collins do things the way he always did, and Saturday nights felt the same again.

Sadly, that began to change in 2018 with a winding down and an eventual retirement in September, 2018. Pre-recorded introductions were available to be streamed but it wasn’t the same. The eventual sad news that Bill Collins had passed away has seen not only the end of an era but is a watershed moment in the decline of classic film on Australian television. Fox Classics has become a shadow of its’ former self, with poor and bizarre programming. Doubled with the loss of TCM after 20 years on Australian Pay-TV, classic film fans are looking to other streaming services, DVDs and even returning to traditional television to watch classic film. But it’s not getting easier and even the purchasing of classic film on DVD has become more difficult and expensive, thanks to Federal Government legislation (making it difficult to purchase classic films on DVD from overseas sites) and the huge price hike in international postage.

So, the lament and sadness in Bill Collins’ passing is even greater than ever. As a tribute to the great man, on the Saturday after his passing, Fox Classics aired a special screening of Gone With The Wind, with the great man introducing what was his favourite film and the film he attributed to beginning his romance with classic film. As I sat and watched, I realised it really was the end of an era and that I would never again see or hear Bill Collins introduce a classic film.

There have been other presenters and there may be other presenters. Yet none of them will match the charisma and passion that Bill Collins nor the longevity and enormity of his career and his personality. If there was a ‘king’ of classic films in Australia, Bill Collins would have worn the crown.

What is left is a wonderful legacy and an incredible amount of gratitude for a man who set alight in me a love for the Golden Years Of Hollywood. He gave Australian film fans so very much and we won’t forget him.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

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To remake or not to remake? The question on rebooting classic film.

by Paul Batters

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Recently, Harrison Ford made an interesting declaration regarding one of his most iconic characters, which is also part of one cinema’s most financially successful franchises – Indiana Jones. Famously close-mouthed about previous roles, the actor made the comment in anticipation of the Disney announcement that a 5th instalment of the Indiana Jones franchise would be released in July 2021. Basically, Ford claimed the role as permanently his, stating:

‘Nobody else is gonna be Indiana Jones! Don’t you get it? I’m Indiana Jones. When I’m gone, he’s gone…’

Whether this declaration is tongue-in-cheek or serious, I cannot ascertain nor does it particularly matter for the purpose of this article. The vast majority of fans would probably agree with Ford, as Indiana Jones is one of cinema’s most loved action heroes. (If his friend George Lucas is anything to go by, there is little to be held sacred in remaking or re-hashing films. Star Wars, anyone?)

But it does raise an interesting question – are there screen characters which should never be re-visited?

It’s also a polarising question and one which probably raises another more divisive question – should classic films be re-made? Cinema is certainly in a strange place at the moment, and there have been consistent attacks on the state of film-making with criticism aimed at the lack of creativity, the focus on special effects and CGI and particularly the obsession on re-makes. The Marvel and DC domination has been discussed ad nauseam and the recent Godzilla movie speaks to this issue as well. (What’s the current tally of Godzilla movies since the 1954 original?)

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The criticisms are not unfounded, and this reviewer certainly agrees with the aforementioned sentiments regarding cinema’s current sins. However, are these problems simply a contemporary phenomenon? Or has Hollywood been re-making films and re-casting iconic roles since its’ earliest days? 

Indeed, the ‘re-make’ has been a part of entertainment that goes back to ancient times. Initially, the ancient Greeks, who created the concept of drama, would see performances only the once and their plays were unique, one-off experiences. However, over time, those plays were performed again and again, particularly during the Hellenistic period. It was also meant that those plays stayed alive and they are still with us today. Consider the plays of Shakespeare. They have been performed, interpreted and even changed (depending on context) since Elizabethan times. King Lear has been interpreted through a whole range of approaches from a medieval Japan context to one set with 1950s Eastern Bloc /Cold War aesthetics! The richness of these stories in language, theme, character and emotion are still alive because they have been performed for hundreds of years. And of course, the Bard’s stories have been interpreted for the screen. Think Olivier’s 1945 film version of Henry V, which is often considered one of the finest screen interpretations of the play. Does this become the one and only version, never to be remade? What of Baz Lurhman’s Romeo And Juliet (1995)? It is not the first nor will it be the last telling of the tragic story of two star-crossed lovers.

The truth is that some of our most loved, revered and celebrated films are remakes, whether we realise it or not. We often chide Hollywood for remaking films within only a few years of each other but actually it’s been a practice since the silent days. By the time, Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde was made in 1932 at Paramount, the story had been filmed at least 8 times, with three versions being made in one year! (1920 to be precise, two in the U.S and one in Germany).  John Barrymore’s 1920 turn as the infamous dual personality was a benchmark performance but March as the doomed doctor is perhaps the most superb in sound film history, with even the great Spencer Tracy unable to reach audiences in the 1941 version with Ingrid Bergman.

The same is true for quite a number of films based on classic literature such as A Tale Of Two Cities, Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers and A Christmas Carol – all being filmed numerous times. By the 1935 MGM version, David Copperfield had been made 3 times. The story of Oliver Twist was on its’ 8thversion in the loved 1968 musical Oliver!(with the film being made 6 times during the silent era!).  William Wyler’s Ben Hur is often cited as the greatest epic ever made and a standard by which other ‘big films’ are measured. Yet it too is a remake of the 1925 silent epic starring Roman Navarro and Francis X. Bushman. (Ironically, the recent remake of Ben Hur was critically panned and financially an unmitigated disaster).

Interestingly enough, Cecil B. deMille is an example of a director who revisited earlier films he had made and gave them a new perspective. The Squaw Man (1914) would be remade two more times in 1918 and 1931! Of all the films he made, his most celebrated, known and loved is his final film, The Ten Commandments (1956), a far superior remake of his own 1923 silent version. In this case, the original is not the best. The 1956 version is the quintessential epic tale, resplendent in Technicolor, with all the kitsch, pageantry and excitement of Biblical proportions that are synonymous with deMille and the epic film.

But not only have epics and tales from classic literature been remade to great or greater success. Contemporary stories have been revisited as well. In the world of film noir, one film which justifiably makes every top five list was on its third remake when it was redone by John Huston. The Maltese Falcon (1941) remains one of the greatest films ever made, far out-pacing it’s prior two incarnations which would have become little more than a footnote in cinema history. The previous 1931 same-titled version starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels is a little stilted, whilst its’ 1936 remake, Satan Met A Lady, starring William Warren and Bette Davis feels more like a typical Warner Bros. programmer and was even considered by critics at the time, such as Bosley Crowther, as ‘inferior to the original’. Neither are remarkable and again, the original is not the best. Huston’s version of the Dashiell Hammett pulp fiction novel, would help to create the tropes and cinematic expression for film noir, and Bogart’s performance as private eye, Sam Spade has become legendary and would make him a star.

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Unfortunately, there is sometimes an element of exploitation that comes with the remake. But Hollywood is a business and driven by profit. If an audience responds, then it the film is deemed a success. The horror genre is one where the remake is a constant, driven by the profit margin rather than artistic merit. That has certainly been the impression felt with Universal’s recent attempt at ‘re-booting’ the classic Universal monsters with disastrous results. (This writer feels that Universal was making an attempt to trash its’ legacy!) The classic monsters were first seen in monochrome but would be remade in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain by Hammer Studios, complete with full-blown colour, gore and sex. Exploitive? Perhaps. Yet audiences saw a new interpretation of the undead Transylvanian count – from a dream-like, hypnotic and slow-speaking Lugosi to an animalistic and vivid Christopher Lee, complete with bloodied fangs. Horror fans often find it difficult to choose, with the character of Dracula ‘belonging’ to both actors. Yet Lee would be less successful with the Frankenstein monster, as would many who preceded and followed Lee, and the monster has been firmly associated with the brilliant performance of Boris Karloff in the original 1932 film and its’ two sequels. Still, the Hammer remakes resonated with audiences, offering something new and exciting.

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Yet there are characters that belong to certain actors and actresses and their ownership of those performances are complete. It is impossible to think of anyone else but Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara or for that matter, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. And of course, Gone With The Wind is a film that no-one would dare remake. The same could be said for Casablanca,again a film with iconic performances from Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, a song that had stood the test of time in its’ poignant definition of love and of course some of cinema’s most famous lines. How could it be remade? The story of Robin Hood has been told numerous times, with mixed results and mixed reviews. Arguably, the role was firmly identified with Douglas Fairbanks Snr, one of the great silent stars, after his 1922 film was a huge hit; until Warner Bros. remade the film in full colour in 1938, with Errol Flynn. A natural for the role, Flynn has owned the role since, despite numerous A-listers taking on the role over the decades.

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There are countless other roles and films which, if recast or remade, would results in loud cries of protest. And perhaps rightfully so. Could The Wizard Of Oz be remade? (Actually, it, too is a remake!) How about Edward G. Robinson as ‘Little’ Caesar Bandello? Imagine a ‘reboot’ of Chaplin’s work. Or Hitchcock’s films. (It’s been done!) Singin’ In The RainDouble Indemnity? The Godfather? Metropolis? Duck Soup? Some Like It Hot?

In the end, a remake will work or fail if it resonates with the audience. For better or for worse, that’s the lowest common denominator that determines a film’s eventual worth andif it will stand the test of time. For silent films (and indeed even some sound films from the golden years of Hollywood), this has proved difficult. Aside from cinephiles and classic film lovers, silent films find difficulty in gaining traction in a mainstream market and for audiences not exposed to silent film. Additionally, we have audiences trained to expect blockbuster films over-cooked with CGI and action every 30 seconds. A silent film, without sound, colour and very different contexts finds it difficult to gain a foothold.

But all the technological advancements in the world cannot replicate, re-design or replace the impact of story.

It takes a fair amount of courage and risk when a remake is given the green light. It means big shoes to fill and an attempt to draw out a performance from under the giant shadow of its’ predecessor. Cinematic history shows that it does happen. But there are films that are like classic works of art. Can a work by Monet or Dali be redone? Should a piece of music by Mozart or Brahms be re-written? And the importance of textual integrity cannot be over-stated either. The recent tragedy of the near destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, will see deep discussion and debate on how to ‘remake’ what has been lost or damaged. Will it be in keeping with the historic and architectural integrity of the building? Will it be true to the cathedral’s past whilst reflecting the modern era (or does it have to)? And how will people react in the present and in the future to any change or lack of change?

The remaking of classic film shares a similar dilemma.

There are advantages to classic films being remade. It sounds almost unthinkable but Nosferatu (1922) would be successfully remade by Werner Herzog (in an English AND German version!) in 1979 with the famed Klaus Kinski in the title role, to great critical and commercial success. It is an impressive film, with stunning visuals, incredibly deep pathos and emotion, and Kinski is outstanding as the vampire. As a result, it also brought new interest in the original 1922 film. If remakes can arouse interest, educate audiences and broaden the experience of cinema, whilst offering a new and exciting perspective/interpretation, then it serves a great purpose.

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But just because classic films can be remade, does not mean that they shouldbe. As already mentioned, Universal came close to trashing their own legacy with the attempted (and hopefully permanently aborted) reboot of the classic horror monsters, which felt watching someone take fluorescent spray cans to the Sistine Chapel. But as audiences, we do need to set aside prejudged notions and allow for new interpretations of stories. This is what provides a richness to cinema and art. Multiple and contemporary readings offer greater insights and new interpretations offer inclusivity to modern and future audiences – and there is great value in that prospect.

But new is not enough. ‘New’ for the sake of ‘new’ does not do justice to a work of art. Nor does new mean better. What is also important to recognise is that masterpieces do not and cannot be replicated. Nor do they need to be. We can already enjoy what exists, revisit them time and time again and walk away re-spirited, revitalised and emotionally moved.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Breen Code and its’ impact on Hollywood

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by Paul Batters

Any industry has a code by which it operates. At its’ birth and during its’ infancy, any new industry or undertaking operates like a frontier town in the old West – laissez-faire and making and/or breaking rules as they go. At some point, however, any industry, for better or for worse, will regulate itself for a whole range of reasons. It could be to improve productivity, to regulate problems that have emerged, to establish some sense of order or because of pressure from government and society standards.

Hollywood, both literally and metaphorically, was like a frontier town in the old West. Ambitious men and women decided to determine their own paths in the world of entertainment, when they headed West from the U.S East Coast in the very early 20th century. The new film industry which emerged heralded a new type of entertainment which audiences clamoured to see in darkened theatres, not only in the U.S but across the world. But with success came a demand for change in how Hollywood operated. The reasons for that change include some of the reasons already mentioned.

Scandals and outrage in Hollywood emerged in the 1920s to shock people around the world and the studios’ concerns were not that their stars had engaged in pre-marital or same sex encounters, were gay or lesbian, used drugs, drank alcohol (think Prohibition) or had affairs. However, they were concerned that audiences would be outraged if they found out that their favourite stars were and turned away from the movie houses. More importantly, powerful conservative voices, including the Catholic Church, politicians and others were concerned that the subject matter in films would corrupt America’s youth, erode morals and values and cause civilisation to collapse. As Gregory Black points out, those conservative voices had managed to recruit millions in their cause and the threat of losing audiences, particularly in the midst of the Great Depression was all too much. Better that the industry regulate itself and keep control, then hand it over to someone else and lose autonomy.

As a result, a ‘film code’ was introduced which would tell the studios what they could and could not depict or infer on screen. From the sublime to the ridiculous, this Code was to assure that civilisation would not go off the deep end. However, it would not truly be enforced until 1934 when Joseph Breen came to the helm of regulating the film industry. Censorship perhaps but also the reality that Hollywood had to deal with.

Censorship can be an abhorrence and stifles, crushes and blunts creativity and freedom of thought. Yet the Breen Code did encourage a new creativity not because that was the key aim of the new Code but because film makers took the initiative. The fact is; they had to. What emerged was, as Thomas Doherty in Pre-Code Hollywood states, the ‘much vaunted golden age (which) began with the Code and ended with its’ demise’.

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This article does not intend to outline what the Code was and how it operated. For the record, I am not an apologist for the Breen Code nor an expert on it. Nor am I a particular fan who believes the Breen Code was one of the best things that happened to cinema. However, it did create a platform for the studios – and writers, producers and directors in particular – to find new and other ways to tell their stories. To borrow a phrase from Martin Scorsese, some had to become ‘smugglers’, finding creative and interesting ways to make movies. In some ways, new genres, sub-genres and stylistic techniques were born from the enforcement of the Breen Code.

The screwball comedy was certainly born from the fallout of the Code’s enforcement. Sexual tensions, premarital sex and adult relationships were now under the microscope of the industry watchdog and had to be either avoided or be very carefully approached. However, the screwball comedy found a beautiful way around this; through the use of humour, sophistication and wit, and a chance for actors and actresses to broaden their appeal as well as their abilities. Actresses such as Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow broke the stereotypical roles they found themselves in up to that point (which arguably accentuated their physicality more than anything else) and gave them a chance to expand their repertoire and become some of the most loved stars of the 1930s. For Myrna Loy, it would be The Thin Man series, as well as some wonderful pairings with Clark Gable and William Powell. Lombard would display her talent for comedy and Jean Harlow likewise.

Recently, I reviewed Libeled Lady (1936) with the MGM powerhouse cast of Loy, Powell, Spencer Tracy and of course Jean Harlow. As I mentioned in the article, the plot is nonsensical and would be impossible to sustain, without the sharp dialogue, charismatic presence of the stars involved and high production values. At the end of the day, the film is much farce as it is screwball, and the whole point is to simply enjoy the comedy and watch glamorous people fall in love. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, the screwball comedy would become an institution of the cinema, with stars such as Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Fred MacMurray and Rosalind Russell, leaving a new and indelible mark on screwball comedy. For Katherine Hepburn, who by the late 1930s was called ‘box office poison’, films like The Philadelphia Story gave her a chance for revival and a rebirth of her career.

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Like the Thin Man films, Libeled Lady is as much about sexual roles as roped in sexuality. The couple can match each other in every way; sophistication, glamour, wit and panache. The earlier Pre-Code films were grittier and at times even cynical regarding sexual power-plays and dominance in gender roles. Yes, the strong, feminist tropes that emerge in Pre-Code films are fascinating and perhaps the challenge to traditional roles and sexual dominance is what also scared stake-holders into pushing for a film code.

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But strong women emerged after the Code as well. As time went on, there was the development of ‘women’s pictures’ for which artists such as Bette Davis would make their mark and assure their stardom. Interestingly, enough Joan Crawford – perhaps one of the most enduring stars who transformed successfully from flapper to the Pre-Code to the Breen Code – would survive being called ‘box office poison’ (like Hepburn) and re-emerge as a star in ‘women’s pictures’.

Actors such as Clark Gable cemented his stardom and showed his comedic chops in his Oscar winning performance in It Happened One Night, the film which established the screwball comedy and garnered in a new age of sophisticated comedy. The film still stands as one of Hollywood’s most loved films. It deftly dealt with sexual tension, the concept of ‘opposites attract’ and a host of other relationship obstacles with some unforgettable and hilarious moments. The two stars never even shared a kiss yet audiences had no problems with watching the couple fall in love, without an embrace. Getting back to Clark Gable, the role of Peter Warne also gave him a chance to break from the typecast tough-guy/heavy and ‘gigolo’ roles which had defined his career in the Pre-Code era.

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There is a strong argument that none of this would have occurred without the establishment of the Breen Code.

To point, studios discovered and developed a new way of telling stories about love, romance and relationships – even illicit relationships. True, they had to be careful but it meant that a sophisticated and witty film genre was formed, which audiences fell in love with.

Additionally, the gangster film had truly taken form during the Pre-Code era, with tropes, characterisations and storylines firmly in place. But the Breen Code challenged those tales and auteurs who found new interpretations and channelled their efforts into expanding on the genre. Warner Bros, home studio to the best of the gangster pictures of the 1930s, were particularly adept at doing so, taking the gangster story far beyond the ‘rise and fall’ plot to looking at social issues that had shaped the gangster and the neighbourhood that they had arisen from. Indeed, the themes and plot that had defined the gangster film in the early 1930s were almost cliched before the Pre-Code days were over; so much so that even E.G Robinson parodied his Little Caesar role in The Little Giant (1933). Time, changing values and the events of history would see the end of the ‘classic gangster cycle’ by the end of the 1930s, not so much the establishment of the Code. Yet Hollywood used the gangster story to reveal social ills and the plight of the underprivileged in films such as Dead End (1937) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1939).

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Considering social issues, the Breen Code certainly didn’t blunt the sharpness of how film portrayed those issues, particularly in films such as The Grapes Of Wrath (1940). Corruption and apathy in government and the concerns over the rise of fascism found a powerful and still poignant voice in the films of Frank Capra, such as Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). Perhaps still one of the most films on politics, All The King’s Men (1949) seems just as relevant today as it did in the post-war period. The Breen Code in some ways had film-makers thinking beyond the scope prior to 1934.

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Another interesting result of the Breen Code was that ‘wholesome’ family pictures began to boom at the box office. It becomes almost unfathomable that in the space of a year, Shirley Temple at Fox would take over from Mae West as the biggest star at Paramount. Yet family films lifted box office receipts and the impact of the Great Depression on the industry began to wane. Musicals became something the whole family could enjoy and their popularity would continue into the 1950s, expanding on the way that stories were told, as well as the stories themselves. The great literary classics of the past had always been appropriated and interpreted for the screen since the earliest days of film but now they became even more prominent. MGM were particularly adept at presenting the classics on film with top-notch production values and the use of their biggest stars in films such as David Copperfield (1935), A Tale Of Two Cities (1935) and Pride And Prejudice (1940). Other studios and producers would also bring literary classics to the screen such as Wuthering Heights (1938) and a remake of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939) that arguably outdoes the original 1925 version. True, some of the deeper and darker themes were sanitised but these great stories were brought to the screen.

Historical events and figures, even the mythical ones would also become fodder for the studios and result in some of cinema’s most loved classics; The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1936) and The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938) are but two examples of such classics. The aforementioned Clark Gable would star as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny On The Bounty (1935), a huge hit for MGM and a further opportunity for Gable to extend his abilities and move beyond the roles he was caught in during the Pre-Code era.

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The Breen Code would provide many challenges to the film industry in the stories that would be told, as well as how they would tell them. Eroticism had been heavily draped but could never be completely covered – instead it simmered. The horror film still sent shivers down the collective spine of its’ audience and indeed found greater depth and expression, particularly evident in the films produced in the 1940s at RKO in the Val Lewton unit. Despite the limitations of budget, Val Lewton was able to produce some of the most memorable supernatural thriller and horror films of the 1940s, with storylines and thematic concerns that went far beyond what was being told elsewhere. And eventually, crime and mystery would find a deeper expression in film noir, which again worked best with subtleties and richer subtexts than explicitness.

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The Breen Code may have presented Hollywood with a whole range of problems and by no means was it a ‘godsend’ which ‘saved’ cinema nor ‘cleaned up’ Hollywood. There are certainly levels of hypocrisy and fault in the Code, which have been dealt with elsewhere. Yet the Breen Code did see, as Doherty describes, ‘an artistic flowering of incalculable cultural impact’. The industry was able to maintain some semblance of ownership over itself, even if it did have to succumb to the personal viewpoints of Joseph Breen. It gave Hollywood the boundaries in which it could express itself but it also gave opened up new possibilities in expression.

This article is the first for the What The Code Means To Me’ series, hosted by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society.  The series focuses on an exploration on of the Breen Code era, with a number of articles sharing experiences and opinions on the Code and the films that were produced during that era. To read upcoming articles from some fantastic bloggers for this series, please visit the following link: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2018/12/17/what-the-code-means-to-me/. 

A special thank you to the Tiffany Brannan for the opportunity to participate! It’s been a great pleasure!

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Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

A Review of Libeled Lady (1936): One of the great final performances of Jean Harlow

by Paul Batters

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You can’t build a life on hate, or a marriage on spite. Marriage is too important. Mine only lasted an hour, but… I know.. Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy)

There are legends of cinema who became stars in the heavens as well as on the silver screen way before their time. They are forever remembered young, vital and beautiful; lives tragically cut short through illness or accident such as Rudolph Valentino, Carole Lombard and of course Marilyn Monroe. But with all due respect to the latter, it was an earlier star who first embodied the concept of the ‘blonde bombshell’. Jean Harlow was a star who combined sexiness with sass, quick-fire delivery with a devastating sexual slow-burn and was electric on the silver screen. Her chemistry with her co-stars saw her as one of the premier stars of MGM and her death would shock the Hollywood film community.

Yet her performances on screen remain timeless and a testimony to her long-lasting legendary status.

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Libeled Lady was one of her final performances and such was her status that she received top billing over William Powell (her fiancé), Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy. Despite signing on for the key role of Connie Allenbury, MGM ‘s Louis B. Mayer wanted Powell paired with Loy to capitalise on the pair’s prior successes. Settling for the role of Gladys, Harlow still gives a spirited performance in a film that is fun, fast-paced and enjoyable. By all reports, Harlow was not bitter and ended up enjoying the role and the film overall.  Additionally, this great screwball comedy is a showcase of MGM’s top talent, something that few studios could boast and a characteristic that was commonplace on the MGM lot. On the surface, it’s easy to suggest that Libeled Lady was a vehicle for Loy and Powell, and as already mentioned Mayer wanted the two together. However, Harlow (and for that matter Spencer Tracy) were far more than supporting actors and the fact that Harlow received top billing suggests that as well.

The story, set around newspaper reporting, drew on a context popular and topical at the time, with numerous studios producing films with newspaper/reporting themes. Aside from radio and the newsreel, people got their news from newspapers (printed at least twice a day) so the ‘chase for the story’, journalists on the hunt etc were very familiar. However, in an era when newspapers were the kings of media, getting it wrong and being sued was a serious matter! As a result, the context allowed for all kinds of gags and quick-fire dialogue that were an integral part of screwball comedy and would suit Jean Harlow down to a tea. It certainly shows in her fine performance.

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The plot revolves around Connie as a wealthy woman accused of breaking up a marriage and the fictitious New York Evening Star newspaper, run by Warren Hagerty (Spencer Tracy) is being sued by Connie for an incredible $5,000,000 for running the false story. Despite the occupational headache this had created for Hagerty, on a personal level it means his marriage to fiancée Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow) is now on hold till he cleans up the mess.

Gladys: You can’t do this to me, Warren Haggerty. Not to me. First, it was a fire at sea. Then it was a kidnapping. What’s the gag this time?
Warren Haggerty: Darling, there’s no gag. The newspaper’s made a mistake.
Gladys: Yeah, well so has little Gladys – engaged to a newspaperman.

In desperation, Hagerty calls on a former star journalist of the newspaper (and apparent womaniser) Bill Chandler (William Powell) who is an ‘expert on libel cases’ and is manipulated into accepting big money to help Hagerty. The crazy plan is for Chandler to marry Gladys (in name only) and masquerade as a married couple. The suave Chandler is then supposed to pursue and seduce Connie, only to be ‘discovered’ by a suitably distraught Gladys and use this as leverage to force Connie to drop the lawsuit. This mad scheme is only agreed to by Gladys, as Hagerty promises to marry her after the plan succeeds.

So how will this all end up? This reviewer will offer up no revelations and you will have to find out for yourself.

If you’re reading this and thinking that the plot sounds absolutely ridiculous, you would be absolutely correct. Under a weak director with second rate actors and poor production values, Libeled Lady becomes a forgotten film and deservedly so. Yet what follows is classic screwball with a healthy dose of farce. What keeps it all together is tight pacing and a very-well written and cohesive script, with crackling dialogue that is right up there with the best screwball comedies of the era. The best of MGM production values are in place and most important of all, you have four of the best and brightest stars of the 1930s. Their chemistry is top shelf and the work off each other with crispness and a complete understanding of what makes farce work – accepting the absurdity of the plot yet making it enjoyable and believable to the audience, even when we know it’s ridiculous.

With the Breen Code in full force, the sexual escapades that could be easily exploited (especially by today’s standards) are deftly dealt with and allow for plenty of laughs, with subtle as well as clever innuendo on the nature of marriage and relationships. However, some of the thematic commentary on marriage becomes an ugly revelation of the ‘norms’ of the time i.e. how couples ‘fought’. There’s also a very cynical view of marriage that is exhibited:

Hagerty: “You mustn’t fight.”

Chandler: “Why not, we’re married.”

Yet there are also some fascinating insights into society’s views on the role of women and reviewer Jennie Kermode makes a valid point; “Gladys is caught between mainstream society’s concept of a virtuous woman and Hollywood’s demonization of it as a force curtailing male ambition”. If there was one star who in real life epitomised and suffered this paradox, it was certainly Jean Harlow.

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Partnering Loy and Powell was not just MGM looking to capitalise on their previous pairings for big box office bucks. The two had wonderful chemistry and could work off each other, the way Rogers and Astaire did on a dance-floor. The rest of the cast are also strong, with Spencer Tracy perfect as the fast-talking and hard-boiled newspaper editor.

There’s plenty of style and sophistication in this classic MGM production, and the chemistry between Loy and Powell is a delight to enjoy. Make no mistake, however, Harlow is far from over-shadowed and her screen presence and real-life relationship with Powell adds a fascinating dimension to their own screen performances. Indeed, Harlow steals many scenes, simply through her presence and charisma, despite her personal health being not at its’ best and terrible tragedy was only around the corner. By all reports, the cast were very close and got along well, which meant an enjoyable shoot for all concerned and the great relationships they shared certainly transfer onto the silver screen. According to Frank Miller at TCM, there were all kinds of gags and off-screen fun which lightened the mood, added to the good atmosphere and even drew Powell out of his dressing room to join in on the amusement.

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The film does build on some already well-established plot devices. As already mentioned, the newspaper angle had already been utilised in films such as It Happened One Night and Platinum Blonde, with far more originality than Libeled Lady. Not to mention the character of the ‘young rich girl’ living a leisurely lifestyle, which had been visited numerous times and would be re-visited numerous times in the future to the point of exhaustion. But you could pull Libeled Lady apart a little too much and miss the fun in the process. As Dennis Schwartz points out, “It’s harmless fun and not worth thinking about it too much. I would recommend just sitting back and going with the lively romp and lavishly costumed production”.

Case in point – the ‘fishing scene’ is hilarious, utilising the talents of Powell with that wonderful actor Walter Connolly, who is always a delight. Of course it’s a little silly but it also has charm mixed in with the laughs and it’s moments like this that make Libeled Lady so much fun.

Despite Powell and Harlow being an off-screen couple, the two did not get to spend a great deal of on-screen time together. However, by all reports Harlow would visit on the set during Powell’s scenes and when the two share screen time, it’s not hard to see Harlow’s real life love for her man.

Kermode correctly states, Libeled Lady ‘was made in an era when screwball comedy capers were at their best. They were also at their most prolific, with MGM focused on finding great pairings..’. This is not strictly a Jean Harlow film but one which displays the best of MGM. Audiences thought so too, as the film did very well at the box office and firmly established Harlow’s place at the top of MGM’s star roster.

However, with respect to the many great actresses of the era, put someone else in the role and it would not be the same film. Gladys’ lines have that sass and sizzle that only Jean Harlow could have delivered – and makes the film a delight to watch.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Alan Hale: The Consummate Character Actor

by Paul Batters

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The nature of an audience is to focus on their favourite stars on the screen. Each studio was fully aware of this during the Golden Years Of Hollywood and they were careful to assure their star performers would be at the centre of that focus. Stars were paired together because they had a special chemistry on the silver screen (even if it didn’t exist off screen!) Directors had their favourites as well and the entire production was geared towards a final product, which aimed to be a hit for audiences.

There is a key aspect of the film making process that is often forgotten or not given a great deal of attention. That is the work of the supporting cast and in particular the character actor. They have faces we have seen many times but sometimes cannot put a name to – and in some cases are often type-cast, as the sidekick in the Western, the ‘heavy’ in the crime, film noir or gangster film or the cruel mother-in-law. But the quality of their performances offer a greater depth to the story being depicted and allow the stars to shine even more so. Many of these actors and actresses have had long and fruitful careers because of the worth they bring to the screen and their ability to give a film balance.

In the world of classic film, perhaps one of the most prolific performers and certainly a loved actor with a very recognisable face is the man born as Rufus Edward Mackahan. He would become better known as Alan Hale Snr.

What made Hale such a remarkable and noticeable face was his uncanny ability to provide balance to any performance. It is debatable whether he worked to upstage, over-shadow or play off the screen any of the stars that he worked with, despite coming damn near close on many occasions. If he did, it doesn’t seem to be out of malice. Indeed, the good-natured Hale was a welcome supporting actor on many films, pushing the main stars to work harder and provide performances, which offered something more. He tempered his performance and understood what his job was; yet it is also important to note that Hale was neither overwhelmed nor intimidated by the stars he was working with. And Hale worked with an incredible array of legendary actors and actresses including Douglas Fairbanks Snr, Lon Chaney, Wallace Beery, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Irene Dunne, Clark Gable and Errol Flynn. Hale would even direct some films for Cecil B DeMille during the 1920s, indicating the wide-ranging talent of the man.

Starting his screen career in the early days of silent cinema, his physical presence saw him often cast as the ‘heavy’ or villain. His opera trained voice would ironically be unheard. Yet his voice with his rich depth and warmth would be as recognizable as his face. Whilst not called upon to sing, Hale’s early vocal training would give him a solid understanding of how to use his voice, which would have been quite the asset during the early days of the talkie. Combined with his solid, tall frame and highly expressive face, Hale had a special and lasting presence on the screen which makes it more than understandable why he was such a sought after character and supporting actor.

 

Whilst he worked at a number of the major studios, Hale is perhaps best remembered for his work at Warner Bros; particularly his work with Errol Flynn. Despite a number of descriptions identifying Hale as a ‘sidekick’ to Flynn, it is erroneous to see Alan Hale in such a light. Flynn and Hale were close and the chemistry shared by the two on screen certainly lifted the scenes they shared into memorable occasions. Some reports suggest that Flynn was a huge fan of Hale because he wasn’t intimidated and enjoyed the fact that Hale was such a success at stealing scenes from the main star. The two would be good friends off the screen as well and Overall, the two would work together in 13 films, including historical dramas such as The Prince And The Pauper (1937), westerns such as Dodge City (1939) biopics such as Gentleman Jim (1942) and swashbuckler such as The Sea Hawk (1940).

 

Yet his most famous role is as Little John opposite Flynn in The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938). Hale’s boisterous sense of fun and adventure bounces off the screen and helps to shape one of the most enjoyable and exciting films that Errol Flynn ever made. Interestingly enough, it is a role he would play three times – once during the silent era alongside Fairbanks Snr and in his final film role in Rogues Of Sherwood Forest (1950).

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Hale had a knack in making even a cameo role memorable and there are many occasions where he was able to seize the moment, injecting some humour with perfect timing and weighting. In It Happened One Night (1934), Hale makes an appearance as Danker, a conman who tries to steal Gable’s and Colbert’s luggage while offering them a lift. He’s on the screen only for a few moments but his singing proves hilarious, and his facial expressions likewise.

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Likewise, Hale’s turn as Ed Carlsen in They Drive By Night (1940) is warm, natural and unpretentious to a fault as the owner of a trucking company and is married to Lana (Ida Lupino), who is as cold and mean as he is sympathetic and friendly. His kindness to Joe Fabrini (George Raft) and the sensitive way he dismisses Joe’s promise to repay him, again shows how effective Hale could be with a simple gesture or facial response. The audience’s sympathies lie directly with Ed and this heightens what will follow, nicely played by Lupino as the cruel counterpart to Hale’s ex-trucker.

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Some reviewers have often described Alan Hale as being simply comedy relief. One of the strongest pieces of evidence to refute this is his role in Stella Dallas (1937) as ‘Uncle’ Ed Munn, where he displays a complexity of vulgarity and pathos in his portrayal. Likewise, in John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934). Hale plays Cook, one of the soldiers facing terrible adversity in the desert during World War One, a role as far from comedy as one can imagine, which he carries with depth and sensitivity.

 

Hollywood has been blessed with a pantheon of incredible character and supporting actors. Without their presence and professionalism, the films produced would be lesser films. Alan Hale provided something special, understanding his craft and using it to full effect. As a result, the films Hale appeared in are far richer, enjoyable and memorable because of what he brought to the silver screen.

A special thanks to Aurora from Citizen Screen, Kellee from Outspoken& Freckled, and Paula from Paula’s Cinema Club, who joined together to host the seventh What A Character! blogathon. Make sure you visit to read other great entries.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Tragedy of Lost Art – Silent Film and Finding The Forgotten

by Paul Batters

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Recently an article from The Silent Film Quarterly was shared by on a social media forum by film critic Steven Finkelstein. My interest was piqued not only because I respect Steven’s views and critiquing but by the article’s attention-seeking title which was looking to pick a fight. The title of this article alone ‘No More Tears Over Lost Films’ (penned by Charles Epting) had me choking on my coffee, as my sensibilities flooded with disbelief.

Disbelief turned to spluttering rage after reading the first paragraph and the writer’s response to his own question. To paraphrase, Epting’s premise is that the loss of 90% of films made before 1929 (according to Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation) is nothing to get upset about and that we’re not missing out on anything. To throw fuel on the fire, Epting claimed that the figures highlighting this loss are ‘essentially meaningless’ and that the ‘missing films’ are not significant.

Trying to maintain my composure, I decided to look into Epting’s arguments for why we shouldn’t care that 90% of pre-1929 films are missing and/or permanently gone.

Firstly, Epting makes the claim that for every masterpiece a la Metropolis or Wings, there are ‘countless low-budget, forgettable films’ e.g. His Neighbour’s Pants which if found would not expand our appreciation or understanding of classic cinema in any way or form. Perhaps. He furthers his argument with a fairly facetious comment that ‘by Scorsese’s count, the loss of His Neighbor’s Pants is just as important as the survival of The Gold Rush’. To attack the incredibly valuable work of Scorsese in trying to save and/or restore lost silent film alone is quite a laughable and reprehensible observation to make. It’s also stunning that someone can make a comment that a film that is lost and unseen has no merit. The most obvious response is ‘how do you know?’ If they have not been seen, how can they be judged as having ‘no merit’?

Additionally, Epting’s draws a long bow of correlation between Wings and His Neighbour’s Pants, in terms of their cinematic and cultural value. No-one would suggest equal artistic merit (despite never having seen the latter!) between the two but why choose such films to compare? Gloria Swanson’s Beyond The Rocks might be a better comparison in terms of time period and production quality. It was a film whose initial loss greatly saddened Swanson and its’ eventual discovery, restoration and screening should surely be celebrated. Similarly, the additional footage found and re-edited into Metropolis is cause for celebration as we have the closest version to date, which reflects the original release. By Epting’s assessment, these shouldn’t matter.

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He continues to ‘argue the point with prose’ by declaring that ‘studios were under no obligation to preserve the nitrate stock for posterity’s sake’. Nonsense. Of course they were and it is to the shame of those studios and to the lament of the filmmakers and their audiences that those films were not preserved. Studios like Paramount were inept in their neglect and derelict in their duty to leave their stock to rot. How many of Clara Bow’s films were lost to this negligence? To the credit of MGM, they invested in the protection of their stock, although the tragic fire of 1967 saw the famed studio lose much of its’ celebrated titles. I wonder Epting’s response to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria would have prompted? Or in the context of this article the Fox Studio vault fire of 1937?

Epting uses some bizarre logic to make his argue his case; even attempting to use ‘data’ as his ace up the sleeve. He states that of the 23 films that received nominations at the 1st Academy Awards in 1928, nearly three-quarters have survived, which he states is ‘not a bad percentage’. Personally, I find it appalling that anyone would base the value of lost or surviving films on numbers alone. But he doesn’t care to dwell on this and then declares that we have 98.7% of Chaplin’s silent films. (I guess this is better than 98.6%…) Incredibly, he argues that the figure is much higher if we consider the number of surviving reels rather than titles. This is perhaps the most absurd use of data I’ve encountered and is akin to comparing numbers of chapters to number of book titles.

The use of data as evidence for his arguments continues to leave convoluted points in place. Some of cinema’s greatest directors, Griffith, Murnau, deMille and Von Stroheim have much of their work intact yet all have varying ‘percentages’ of lost films as well. True, their reputations and legacy remain remarkable and intact regardless of whether those films are found or not. But that is beside the point. Those lost films need to be found, restored and viewed because it’s the work of the aforementioned directors. As fans of classic film, the audience’s experience of those great filmmakers can only be enhanced and we can always learn more about a director and the context of his or her time from their work. To suggest otherwise is laughable at best.

At any rate, rattling some of the best-known directors of the period makes not an argument. What undiscovered works from lesser known directors or artists remain hidden or lost?

The same argument is used regarding the great Lon Chaney Snr and the most frequently discussed lost film, London After Midnight (1927). I have previously written about this film and have stated that the film may disappoint for a number of factors. But I would never suggest that a print of the film would not be valuable to classic film fans. Yes there is no shortage of Chaney films to view and discuss. Does that mean that adding another would not be worth it? According to Epting, the loss of The Miracle Man (1919) is meaningless because we have enough of Chaney’s work anyway. To use an earlier argument of his using ‘data’, what existing footage there is of The Miracle Man is enough at any rate. Being Chaney’s breakout performance and judging by the footage that does exist, it’s not hard to imagine that the film would have been a masterpiece and if found, will prove an exciting discovery. Again, it is hard to accept Epting’s arguments. Imagine suggesting that discovering a lost play by Aeschylus or a previously unknown artwork by Van Gogh is not worth worrying about because we already have existing works by these artists. 

By contrast, two of the silent era’s biggest stars have a vast amount of their work lost and/or missing. Both defined their time and are important in cinema history, particularly in the portrayal and development of archetypes. The first is the original vamp, Theda Bara, who was perhaps the biggest star of the 1910s and certainly one of the first, if not the first sex symbol. We have hardly any of work to view or critique, and regardless of whether they are dated or, to paraphrase Epting, not worth seeking or saving, Bara’s films would certainly be important to cinema history. One of her most celebrated films, from which prints often turn up in film books, is the long-lost Cleopatra (1917). Its’ discovery would be an exciting one and should not prompt disdain from Mr. Epting. The same could be said for Madame Du Barry (1917) or Salome (1918). The loss of such films are a tragedy to our understanding of cinema and its’ early development.

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The second star is the aforementioned Clara Bow, the ‘It’ Girl, whose story is one of sadness and tragedy despite the charm and naturalness she brought to the screen. Bow ushered in a new era in the 1920s, which eclipsed the previous sex symbol characteristics employed by Bara and reflected the post-WW1 period for young women in a way no one else did on the silver screen. She was the quintessential flapper of the 1920s. Yet almost half her films are lost, which Paramount with willful negligence let deteriorate in their vaults. To re-discover her films and be able to see them again would be a boon to classic film fans.

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Using the reviews and audience responses of the days are not necessarily helpful either. There are numerous films that were poorly received upon their release. Yet time and re-assessment have changed our views and those films have been seen in a new light. In contrast, films that were well received upon release have not always aged well and have even been forgotten in some cases – even Academy Award winners (Cimarron a case in point). At one point, Epting seems to contradict himself by claiming that box office figures during the silent era are notoriously difficult to corroborate and perhaps should not be used as a guide for what is a successful film. Yet he later claims that ‘box office flops’ which are less likely to exist are not a great loss. At any rate, do we simply judge the value of a film by its’ box office receipts?

In fairness to Epting, he tries to employ the positive notion that we should celebrate what silent film does exist and enjoy it. But to denigrate the desire to find and/or preserve silent films that are lost or need restoration is not the stuff of cinephiles. It is most disconcerting when comments such as the following, are made by Epting: Once a movie was released and shown at theaters across the country, it was effectively finished. Storage of nitrate film reels was costly and dangerous. If these films had no commercial potential, what was the point of utilizing valuable resources to save them?

Really?

Lastly, suggesting that what survives is special because the rest has perished becomes a dangerous premise to go by. Indeed, the destruction of past works becomes the drive not only to protect what we have but also becomes the inspiration to appreciate, archive and protect all works and find better and more lasting ways to preserve them. Our appreciation of classic film will not only be enhanced by appreciating what we do have but by continuing to seek out lost treasures and preserving what we do find. Knowledge and understanding does not grow and is not nurtured through limitations but by continually seeking and looking at what the possibilities are.

Thankfully there are many involved in the search and preservation of classic films and undoubtedly they will not be overly perturbed by the sentiments of Mr. Epting. Susan King, who writes on classic film in the Los Angeles Times is one writer I regularly notice who keeps me abreast of new discoveries and the future for film restoration and discovery looks bright, if luminaries such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg continue their efforts.

And yes, I would like to see His Neighbour’s Pants if Mr. Scorsese manages to restore it.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Three Musketeers (1948) – For A Lazy Sunday Afternoon

by Paul Batters

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Who wants to live ’till the last bottle is empty? It’s all-for one, d’Artagnan, and one for all!’ Athos (Van Heflin)

Films provide us with a myriad of opportunities and personal responses. We all have those films that can be a catharsis for pent up emotions, from which we find release where others merely shrug or cannot see or make the personal connection. There are those films we watch and in which we become deeply immersed or those we simply enjoy because they are fun. Hollywood has always been about escape and stepping into another world is a key part of the magic. Indeed, we sometimes find ourselves watching a film (after enjoying it many times before) because it’s a ‘go-to’ when we need something that’s either not too taxing on our thought process or is the perfect film to get comfortable with on the sofa. As much as I enjoy considering the brilliance of how a director like Murnau frames the mis-en scene, it’s also nice to enjoy some silly film that’s just plain fun. Sometimes you need a good burger and a Coke over filet mignon and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon (or two).

For me, MGM’s colourful and grandiose The Three Musketeers (1948) is such a film.

The classic novel by Alexandre Dumas, pere, is a particular favourite of mine and it is no wonder that the famous story has been filmed numerous times. It offers adventure, romance and intrigue, with liberal doses of exciting characters and history (or historical fiction to be precise), all thrown together in an almost epic story. Bringing such a story to the screen, presents quite the challenge to the director and MGM certainly saw the value in doing so in 1947, when it announced that a film adaption of the story was going into production. Its’ eventual release in 1948 was a financial success for MGM, although profits would be slightly whittled down by the huge production cost.

Yet despite this, The Three Musketeers, directed by George Sidney, is not exactly MGM at its’ very best though critics generally gave it good reviews, including Bosley Crowther. Over time, however, critics have been less kind in their reviews. In fairness, the negative criticisms are not unfounded. Visually, The Three Musketeers is a Technicolor extravaganza that is perhaps a little too saturated in rich colour and goes way over the top in the costume department. The film is also over-long with certain scenes drawn out, unnecessary and laboured to the point of distraction. As a result, the pacing of the film goes awry. Additionally, the direction of the film at certain points becomes disjointed, with the film not able to decide whether it is rollicking fun-filled romp, petty melodrama, romance or dark historical drama. The romance scenes are as cheesy as you can get and Kelly’s wooing of June Allyson is cringe-worthy of the highest degree. And just for good measure, the casting is also a little off-key, despite some great talent.

Let’s have a look at the story.

The oft-told story has the young, naïve and slightly grandiose d’Artagnan (portrayed by the not-so-young Gene Kelly) heading to Paris to fulfil his dream of becoming a Musketeer. On his journey, he immediately finds himself in trouble, which will inadvertently find him committed to fight three duals in one day – against the very men he intends to join, the Three Musketeers. In the process of the first duel against Athos (Van Heflin), the guards of the King’s powerful Prime Minister Richelieu (Vincent Price) interrupt them and a mighty sword fight ensues. d’Artagnan fights alongside and wins the admiration of the three, who embrace him into their friendship group.

But he is drawn into further intrigue when he falls in love with Constance (June Allyson), a lady-in-waiting of the Queen (Angela Lansbury). Given a set of 12 diamonds by her husband the King (Frank Morgan), she instead offers them as a gift to her lover the English Duke Of Buckingham (John Sutton). Richelieu learns of this and sees an opportunity to gain mileage out of it but our heroic group set out to retrieve the jewels from England, facing danger, whilst Richelieu employs the treacherous and beautiful Countess de Winter (Lana Turner).

It’s all part of his scheme to bring France and England to war, and thus seize the throne for himself. However, d’Artagnan is successful in his mission and returns with the jewels including two replacements, previously stolen by the Countess.

Impressed by d’Artagnan’s courage, Richelieu attempts to gain his services by not only kidnapping Constance but by also using the Countess to seduce and distract the young aspiring musketeer. But as he starts to fall for the Countess, d’Artagnan discovers a terrible truth from the long-suffering Athos – the Countess is actually Athos’ wife, condemned to death for her treachery.

After much turmoil, war does break out and although things do not go well for Richelieu, he is not yet undone. The Musketeers discover proof, which will implicate Richelieu in his evil plans but they must first deal with the Countess as well as maintain the King’s good graces. The final ending will not be revealed here!

There’s a fair amount of silliness, barely believable character development and motivation and political intrigue that makes little sense. So why do I enjoy the film?

Because it is fun to watch – even with all the nonsense.

There is some weak casting but the strengths outweigh any weaknesses. True, Gene Kelly is not exactly what many might picture as a believable d’Artagnan, considering Kelly’s age at the time. But he was certainly dedicated to the role. Kelly, who had long held an ambition to play the role, previously and famously played in the 1921 silent version by the legendary Douglas Fairbanks Snr, particularly championed the production of the film. According to Gene Kelly, Fairbanks had been a boyhood hero of his, and marvelled at his acrobatic skill and screen presence, leaving the boy with dreams of matching the great man’s skills. In a February 1985 issue of Interview, Kelly stated that his greatest influence was the legendary silent screen star: ‘I couldn’t believe his grace, his moves, his athleticism’. Despite a long-standing dream of playing the role, Kelly would admit that it was a taxing time playing D’Artagnan, outlining in a 1991 interview with Reflections:

“Every time I think about The Three Musketeers I want to groan…ouch! I feel sore and stiff at just the thought of it… I had to go into training for that picture just like a prizefighter before a fight”.

Additionally, Kelly himself had the athleticism and physical skill of an amazing dancer and he brings this to the portrayal. Kelly’s d’Artagnan is formidable and incredibly skilled with the sword, and the amazing sword fights and action are breathtaking in their choreography and some of the best on screen. Kelly would state:

We studied two hours a day with Jean Heremans, the national fencing champion of Belgium, to learn how to fence. What a genius he was. When he had finished with us we, who were greenhorns, were able to fight with one hand tied behind. It was hard work.”

All the training and hard work appears seamless on the screen and it’s one of the great strengths of the film. Furthermore, Kelly does bring a vivaciousness, joy and carefree naivety that fit the portrayal quite well.

A number of critics haven’t thought much of Van Heflin as Athos but he’s believable as the tormented musketeer haunted by a past and drowning his sorrows in drink. Heflin conveys the tragedy of Athos’ life with authenticity and the final scenes, which bring his personal tragedy to a head, are also done well.

But perhaps the best casting is Lana Turner as the Countess. She is absolutely gorgeous to look at and as dangerous as a femme fatale. By all reports, she wasn’t too keen on the role but MGM prevailed upon her and we get to see Turner in her first Technicolor film. The final scenes as she faces justice are also beautifully done. Also outstanding is Vincent Price as Richelieu. The combination of his physicality, wonderful voice and incredible confidence shapes a memorable and completely believable villain.

Production wise, there was no hold back on the cost. All the hallmarks of a classic MGM production are present. The MGM used their back-lot well and the keen eye will recognise some of the sets being used in period pieces and historical dramas, not to mention the odd musical. Street scenes, inns, palaces and gardens all evoke the era and our hero and his cohort seem right at home there as they make merry, fight and carouse.

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Truth to be told, The Three Musketeers is superficial silliness and yes, there is plenty that could have been fixed. But put aside critical analysis and it’s also a lot of fun. The fact that it’s gaudy and over-the-top shapes its’ appeal and despite the director unsure of his film’s identity, it never truly take itself seriously. And we all need that type of film from time to time.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon, hosted by The Classic Film And TV Cafe Blog. Please click on the following link for access to more articles for this blogathon – https://www.classicfilmtvcafe.com/2018/05/celebrate-national-classic-movie-day.html

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.