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RKO Lost and Found at the Film Forum

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RKO Lost and Found at the Film Forum

Radio-Keith-Orpheum Pictures was the springboard for many of Hollywood’s famous players, from David O. Selznick, George Cukor and Max Steiner behind the camera to Kate Hepburn and Cary Grant in front of it. One of the original Big Five studios, RKO became known for B-pictures, Astaire and Rogers musicals, screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby, and a little movie by a young writer-director named Orson Welles. In Hollywood circles, RKO was also known for its constant financial problems; despite having successful runs under Selznick and King Kong creator Merian C. Cooper, the studio’s extravagant spending often threatened its existence. The studio changed hands several times (most notably, Howard Hughes’ hands) before its original incarnation was dissolved in 1959.

When cinematic crayon wielder Ted Turner bought RKO’s library in 1987, no one knew the purchase was short six films. These films were recently discovered by Turner’s cable outlet, Turner Classic Movies, and will join its rotation later in 2007. Five of these films have not been seen in any medium since 1959, and the sixth film was thought to be lost forever. These films, originally sold to Merian C. Cooper after he left the studio, are being presented as double features in a one-week retrospective starting today at New York City’s Film Forum.

The six films include pre-Hays Code and post-Code features, a film whose only surviving print has Dutch subtitles, and one of the strangest musicals ever produced.

Just for clarification, the Code I speak of is the Hays Code, which reminds us of what Hollywood wasn’t allowed to do when it came into being, and also, as this still from Stingaree shows, what Hollywood was allowed to do. The retrospective kicks off today with a pre-Code double feature, Rafter Romance and Double Harness (both 1933).

Double Harness features William Powell one year before he became famous as perpetually drunk private dick Nick Charles in the Thin Man series. Its plot is decidedly B.C. (before Code, that is). “Marriage is the business of women,” says Joan Colby (Ann Harding), and she makes an unwilling Powell her business partner the old fashioned way—she has her father (Henry Stephenson) catch them as in flagrante delicto as 1933 would allow. The Colby patriarch shames Powell into marrying his daughter because, I suppose, back then if you got caught milking the cow for free, you had to buy her from the farmer. Their relationship goes about as well as one could expect from a “forced” marriage, but Harness manages to squeeze out a happy, though unbelievable, ending.

Directed by John Cromwell, father of actor James, Harness nonchalantly tosses in adultery, gold-digging, pre-marital sex and a few risqué lines, and while the Hays Office might have allowed some of these things in a tamer configuration, it never would have allowed the amoral depiction of them found here. Harding and her sister are determined to get married, but while her immature drunk of a sibling is marrying for “love,” Harding approaches her societal entrapment like a businessman playing hardball. She’s Joan Crawford if Crawford could have channeled her forthrightness into a sexy, deceptive form of charm.

Harness climaxes with an absurd dinner party that should have been more crazily depicted than Cromwell allows. It seems tacked on to pad the running time, but seeing two stereotypes—a stuffy English butler and a broken-English speaking Chinese cook—have a wrestling match in the kitchen is worth the price of admission.

Rafter Romance stars Ginger Rogers and Norman Foster as two people unknowingly sharing an attic apartment at the behest of their nice Jewish landlord (George Sidney), a man with the biggest hands I have ever seen. The landlord and his preternaturally happy wife (you know what they say about men with big hands?) meddle in the business of their tenants, bringing them (stereotype alert!) chicken soup and matchmaker advice while gently demanding the months of back rent they are owed. Said back rent is the plot device that leads artist Foster and telemarketer Rogers to their Ladyhawke-style living arrangement: she gets the apartment from 8 PM to 8 AM, and he gets it from 8AM to 8PM, and they are never to see nor interact with each other.

Of course, they do meet and they do interact, just not at the house. Foster and Rogers share a “meat cute,” when he sees her framed in a giant sausage hanging in a butcher shop window. It gives him, and the viewer, some ideas Jimmy Dean wouldn’t admit to having.

In case we missed the pre-Code subtlety, Romance gives us a shot of Foster’s sketch of the event that made him fall in love with Rogers.

As Foster and Rogers woo each other in this incarnation, they wage war against each other in their apartment. Rogers thinks Foster is a bohemian and a slob, and Foster thinks she is an old maid from the ’burbs, but they never catch on in the identity department. They leave mean notes for each other, and play practical jokes that include ruining Foster’s best suit and causing Rogers to get a near concussion during a shower. The pre-shower scene, it should be noted, contains a shot of Rogers stepping out of her panties, something that would have killed Will Hays.

While watching Rafter Romance, I was struck by how alive William A. Seiter’s direction is; he is truly in love with the camera and what it can do. There is a wonderful series of shots nearly every time the characters ascend or descend flights of tenement stairs. As we follow the characters, so does the camera, passing through the ceiling and the floor as the landings arrive. His direction saves the film from its two biggest weaknesses, a rather lackluster script and Foster, one of the least charismatic leading men to grace a feature. “He’s got to be screwing somebody famous in order to get into pictures,” I thought. He was; in 1933 he was Mr. Claudette Colbert.

On February 26th , the Forum screens Living on Love (1937) and One Man’s Journey (1933). The former is a post-Hays Code remake of Rafter Romance, and bests its original in every respect except direction and score. I would have loved to see what Seiter could have done with this script, but director Lew Landers’ work is just fine. The plot is the same, except this time it’s a basement apartment, the stereotype in the landlord’s place is a Mammy-style Black woman, the lead actress (Whitney Bourne) sells electric shavers, and the lead actor (James Dunn) has talent and charisma to spare.

The post-Code differences here are stunning. For starters, the film takes a less raunchy approach to some of the same material. In Romance, Rogers’ boss, Robert Benchley, makes repeated attempts to slip out of his wet clothes and into a dry Ginger ale; his attempts redefine sexual harassment. In Living, Franklin Pangborn is more subtle, (“go out with me or I’ll slit my wrists with an Anderson Electric Shaver”) and his hits on Whitney Bourne are at one point reprimanded with a violently loud “NO!” There are no shots of anybody’s bloomers, and Bourne’s face appears between far less phallic sausages, though the verbiage next to that sausage picture leaves little to the imagination. “Take some home and frame the wife!” they proudly hail. Frame the wife with sausages?! Oh baby.

That last item shows a switch between 1933 and 1937 films; the early 30’s were more concerned with images, and the latter 30’s films, with the advent of the screwball comedy, relied on more verbal gymnastics. The censor’s ears were more easily misled than his eyes. Living’s script is consistently fast and funny, and there are scenes influenced by slapstick and screwball comedies. Couple that with two leads who have the required chemistry and you have a superior remake.

Understated and Lionel Barrymore do not belong in the same sentence, but in One Man’s Journey, Barrymore’s performance deserves that adjective. Barrymore plays a doctor in a small town who spends his life helping residents who are too broke to go to the town’s other doctor. After delivering a baby girl but failing to save her mother, Barrymore is ostracized by the town and forced to take the girl to raise, along with his 6-year old son, as his own daughter. Said ostracizing does not prevent every penniless Tom, Dick and Harry from seeking his services when health issues arise. Journey follows Barrymore’s life over several years, stopping in on scenes of his now grown son (Joel McCrea of Sullivan’s Travels) becoming a doctor, the romantic life of his “daughter” (Dorothy Jordan, Mrs. Merian C. Cooper), and his ultimate redemption in the eyes of the town. Director John S. Robertson keeps things moving at a nice pace, and also keeps Barrymore’s teeth out of the scenery.

February 27-March 1 brings two must-see movies to the Forum, A Man To Remember and Stingaree. One of these is a post-Code remake and the best film in the series; the other must be seen to be believed.

A Man To Remember had not been seen since 1938 and was thought lost. According to the TCM press release, it existed only in the preserved Dutch language print the Forum and TCM will be showing. The film is in English, but the impossible-not-to-read subtitles are in Dutch. It is a jarring juxtaposition, as some scenes of written letters and signs show that they have been translated into Dutch, but this does not prevent the film from being a compelling piece of filmmaking.

The legend has it that when Garson Kanin went to Samuel Goldwyn asking to direct for his studio, Goldwyn said “How can you be a director? You’ve never directed.” Kanin then negotiated for his release, and when Goldwyn refused, Kanin compared his tenure under Goldwyn to “slavery.” “You’re some slave,” said Goldwyn. “If you were a slave of mine…I’d sell you!”

Kanin eventually got sold to RKO, and his directorial debut was A Man To Remember, a post-Code remake of One Man’s Journey. Again, the differences between the two are striking. Journey features a scene where the doctor’s daughter obviously has sex with her paramour. “Are you sorry you did it?” he asks her just before they crash while he’s trying to get freaky with her on the ride home. No such scene exists in Remember, though the daughter’s paramour does accidentally shoot her.

The overall tone is different as well. Robertson’s direction is more matter-of-fact than emotional in its approach to the material, and his film is effective yet less sentimental. Kanin’s film is structured like a weepie, opening with the death of the doctor (Edward Ellis, who played the titular character in The Thin Man) and flashing back to important moments in the doctor’s life. The emotional pull is far stronger, and I wonder if this shift in tone was a precursor to the similarly structured pictures of the 40’s. In the early 30’s, it felt like audiences wanted their comedies to be exaggerated takes on the foibles of the rich or the common, but their dramas were desired straight, no melodramatic chaser. Barrymore’s doctor’s life follows a forward path, and there is no death scene. He goes through his motions and the film is quicker to observe rather than choreograph.

This is not meant as criticism toward A Man To Remember; it is easily the best film the series has to offer and is effective despite its lack of stars—or perhaps because of it. Kanin handles the flashback cliché with little trouble and the film, while melodramatic at times, is never manipulative or overdone. Remember adds three money-hungry characters who can’t wait for Ellis’ body to be cold before picking at his remains for debt settlement, and a shot of redemption and revenge from beyond the grave. One can see the structure that numerous future films would take in dealing with this type of material.

Ellis turns in a fine character performance, and he is ably assisted by Anne Shirley as his adopted daughter and Lee Bowman as his doctor son. Remember adds a level of tension between father and son that was not evident in its predecessor, and also the rare misstep of a confusing relationship between Shirley and Bowman. The script by Dalton Trumbo might explain why the film hadn’t been seen since 1938. When RKO started piping its films through its TV affiliates via the Million Dollar Movie series, it would have been the height of the blacklist. Trumbo’s name would have eliminated the ability to show the film anywhere in the U.S.

The New York Times put A Man to Remember as one of its ten best films of 1938, and I can’t say I disagree with them.

Throughout this essay, I have been licking my lips and rubbing my hands together in anticipation because I can’t wait to tell you just how messed up Stingaree is.

This is a western and a musical—an oxymoron almost as big as the RKO logo’s slogan “A Radio Picture”—and the words “western and musical” should conjure up images of Paint Your Wagon in your head. This is far better than that hot mess, but Lord Still Have Mercy!

Where do I start? Stingaree is a bandit in Australia who’s also a songwriter. Like Shaft, he has his own theme song, and when he’s not robbing from the rich, he’s composing sappy music. He’s half Robin Hood, half Robin Gibb! RKO super-celebrity Richard Dix plays Stingaree, and he rides into town to end up robbing songwriter Sir Julian Kent (Conway Tearle) and über-rich singer Mrs. Clarkson (a hilarious Mary Boland) Kent is en route to hear sing. When you meet Mrs. Clarkson, and hear her sing, there won’t be a dry eye—or an uncracked pair of eyeglasses—in the house. She is a hilariously bad, horrific soprano, and she sings a song with the lyrics “Yo ho! Yo ho! Yo ho! Yo ho! Yo ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho hooooo! I wanna be a Fisherman!!!!” With lyrics like that, why not a pirate?

So far, we’ve got Robin Hood and American Idol. Stingaree then adds the Cinderella factor: Mr. Clarkson (Stephenson again) loves Hilda Bouverie (Irene Dunne), but Mrs. Clarkson is a mean guardian to her. Hilda can sing, and secretly longs for an audience with Sir Julian, but Mrs. C will have none of that. The dresses worn by the women in these scenes have the same exaggerated posteriors as the wicked stepsisters in Disney’s Cinderella. You could sit a cup and saucer on the enhanced booty in this film—Sir Mix-a-Lot’s eyes would fall out. Especially guilty is the cockney maid played by Una O’Connor. She’s decrepit old, but when she turns around, you’ll swear she’s 21.

Don’t ask me how, but Stingaree shows up in the guise of Sir Julian, hears Hilda sing, and then asks her to sing a song he’s composed called “Tonight Is Mine”. It is the first of 7 gazillion times we will hear this song, and while Irene Dunne may have been Jerome Kern’s favorite soprano, she still has to sing these wretched lyrics. Stingaree’s biggest crime begins with an ’R’, but it ain’t robbery, it’s ’riting.

Stingaree, along with his sidekick Andy Devine, kidnaps Hilda and takes her to the woods. Since this is pre-Code, Stingaree gives Hilda a stolen dress she will put on after undressing in front of both Devine and Stingaree. This leads to a scene where Dunne gets done by Dick Dix’s dick while Devine dutifully doesn’t disturb them despite drooling.

Still with me? Time to add A Star is Born. Stingaree gets purposefully imprisoned, giving up his career so that Hilda can have the singing career he thinks she deserves. Hilda goes off with Sir Julian, who makes her a star but can’t seem to get her to give up what’s under that big butt dress. The way the film invokes memories of Stingaree while Sir Julian tries to work his mojo must be seen to be believed. “Are we ever going to have a honeymoon?” asks Sir Julian. Hilda is just about to give it up, then Una O’Connor’s maid in the other room starts up the music box that Stingaree gave Hilda (it plays “Tonight is Mine”, of course) and Hilda ends the honeymoon early.

How this ends I’ll leave up to you to discover, but discover you must. Stingaree needs to be on a double bill with something like Otto Preminger’s Skidoo.

The “RKO Lost & Found” series runs from February 23rd—March 2nd, 2007 at New York City’s Film Forum.