Mountain Meanery

MAY IS EARLY 3-STRIP TECHNICOLOR MONTH

An action-packed historical drama with Western elements, 1938’s GOLD IS WHERE YOU FIND IT, the second all-three-strip-Technicolor Warner Bros. feature, comes to DVD via the Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment.

In 1936, Paramount beat the other studios to the Technicolor punch by producing Trail of the Lonesome Pine – the first three-strip movie to be shot on-location. The pic, deservedly a smash hit with critics and audiences, opened the floodgates for similar fare, and Warners led the charge. In 1937, their first “new Technicolor” pic was the outdoor adventure, God’s Country and the Woman, starring George Brent. Not surprisingly, it did quite well with audiences (critics were mixed), enough to do a sort-of follow-up, again starring Brent.

But this time, there would be improvements, mostly in terms of upgraded budget, supporting cast, and director.

Indeed, Brent’s costars were way above his God’s Country cast members (Beverly Roberts, Robert Barrat, Alan Hale, Roscoe Ates, and the insufferable El Brendel – although baddie Barton MacLane would return). Here, he was ably supported by no less that Olivia de Havilland and Claude Rains, each making their Technicolor debuts (with the latter appearing in his only Western), plus an array of character actor faves, including Margaret Lindsay, John Litel, Sidney Toler, Tim Holt, Henry O’Neill, Russell Simpson, George “Gabby” Hayes (yep, Gabby Hayes and Claude Rains doing scenes together – and in Technicolor!), Harry Davenport, Clarence Kolb, Moroni Olsen, Willie Best, Granville Bates, Charles Halton, and Cy Kendall.

Even more prestigious was the choice of director – Michael Curtiz, making his initial foray into the perfected process. An old hand at two-strip, his earlier works often used the previous color system for highlighted sequences (Mammy), and, more relevantly, for full-length titles (Under the Texas Moon, Dr. X, Mystery of the Wax Museum). But this was all-new, all-natural, and presented the challenge of dealing with the elements. More on that later.

The story for GOLD IS WHERE YOU FIND IT was scripted by Warren Duff and Robert Buckner (based upon a Cosmopolitan serial by Clements Ripley, another important factor). It was not simply a mountain romance with a lot of action (although there was plenty of that on both counts). It was a movie amazingly (for 1938) about ecology.

In 1879, the new-born American fat cats (aka, the 19th century one-pecenters) glom on to the 1877 discovery of gold in California – a strike that threatens to surpass the famed 1849 rush. Rather than laboriously using pans and sifters, these “entrepreneurs” go all technology and utilize the industrial age mechanics of hydraulics to essentially rape the Sacramento Valley. This (as we see in frightening sequences) comprises using torrents of siphoned lake/river water to rip the tops and sides off mountains (day and night, 24/7!).

While this leads to quicker results, it also causes a nightmare of side effects. Man-made floods of tsunami strength ruin thousands of acres of farmed crops, turn the rich terrain into giant sinkholes, and even cause deaths from desecrated property and washed-away homes.

Brent is the modern techno-crat foreman who rides out to oversee the project, falls in love with Rains’ farmer’s daughter de Havilland and attempts to reach a compromise before the escalating violence between the factions turns into a full-scale war.

Interestingly enough (and a positive sliver of hope for my like-minded ecologists), the highest court in America eventually ruled in favor of the farmers, citing the destruction as unnecessary, and, in fact, causing a devastating effect on the land – in essence, polluting it. Oh, yeah, did I mention, this is based on a true story?

As alluded to, the elements had their say in the production, as actual torrential rains disrupted filming, causing expensive and excessive delays. Director Curtiz, already known for taking too long on Warners movies, made lemonade out of these landfalls, and spent many hours with camera crews shooting rainbows in the new process. Suffice to say, these shots are jaw-dropping gorgeous.

Like with many who disagreed with him, Curtiz soon took on the Technicolor organization, particularly official color consultant Natalie Kalmus (wife of the firm’s owner). Going against the rules provided by the company, the director chose to shoot in to backlight for several pastoral sequences. When Ms. Kalmus complained, the Hungarian autocrat snapped back that Technicolor doesn’t tell the sun what to do. Nor (apparently) Curtiz. The dazzling results floored the studio hierarchy in the Warners screening room, and actually caused Technicolor to rewrite their guidelines.

Typical of Curtiz, the narrative moves quick and the lavish sets, including one for an Eastern city ball (where the evil capitalists conspire), contrasted with the scenic splendor of Weaverville, CA (as lensed by d.p. Sol Polito), are awesome in three-strip. Nevertheless Warner suits (including J.L.) were biting their nails, anxiously awaiting for the bloated cash-hemorrhaging pic to wrap. They needn’t have worried, GOLD proved just that at the box-office, reaping a profit of $250K, a lofty sum in 1938.

SIDELINE WINK-WING, NUDGE-NUDGE BIT: Making an appearance at the aforementioned ball is a Senator Hearst, who chuckles about his frivolous son wanting to run a newspaper; it is indeed the pater of William Randolph Hearst, an in-joke, as the movie was coproduced at Warners with Mr. H’s Cosmopolitan Productions, and, as indicated, originated from a story in the magnate’s names-the-same magazine.

The Warner Archive DVD of GOLD IS WHERE YOU FIND IT looks pretty damn good. While not rendering the clarity of a Blu-Ray (maybe a possibility for a later release), the colors are spectacular, reasonably approaching the beauty that knocked the socks off 1938 audiences. The mono track, typical of the studio, is fairly strong, featuring a (what else?) boisterous score by Max Steiner.

Curtiz, de Havilland, and Rains would be rewarded and reunited later that year with their second Technicolor effort, the (rightfully way better known) blockbuster and eventual all-time classic, Adventures of Robin Hood.

GOLD IS WHERE YOU FIND IT. Color. Full frame [1.33:1]; 2.0 mono. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment. CAT # B00O9OEBMG. SRP: $9.99.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

Hues and Cries

MAY IS EARLY 3-STRIP TECHNICOLOR MONTH

Although Nothing Sacred followed it seven months later, producer David O. Selznick intentionally spaced an even more elaborate Technicolor release earlier that year to lay the groundwork for his planned widespread-color assault – a lavishly-budgeted tale of Hollywood, warts and all. The result, 1937’s A STAR IS BORN, now available on Blu-Ray (from the Warner Archive Collection) in a stunning new restoration from the original 35MM three-strip nitrate negatives.

Convinced that all new Technicolor should look as natural as possible, the producer picked a like-minded director (William A. Wellman) and star (Fredric March) for this revealing, often heart-wrenching, yet brutally sarcastic depiction of the movie industry (that said, fellow directors Jack Conway and Victor Fleming would be called in to do pickup shots and additional sequences); both would be rewarded later with similar duty on Nothing Sacred. While Wellman’s participation was practically a given (he’s credited as author of the original story/idea), March’s role as the slipping, aging alcoholic one-time matinee idol Norman Maine was initially pitched as a natural for John Barrymore. Problem was that it proved a bit too natural. Reportedly, tests were made, but the actor at this point had trouble remembering even the simplest of lines (he furthermore refused to read off out-of-camera-view blackboards); plus, needless to say, the years of drinking had finally taken its physical toll on the Great Profile. As for Wellman’s idea, I suspect much of his thoughts came after viewing the unofficial first version of the story, 1932’s What Price Hollywood?, starring Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman, and directed by George Cukor (not surprisingly, Cukor’s name was at one time bandied about as director for this pic). Although Dorothy Parker is officially credited as the main scribe, Selznick (and Wellman) contributed to the screenplay, along with bits and pieces by Robert Carson, Alan Campbell, Ben Hecht, Budd Schulberg, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Lee Mahin, and Adela Rogers St. John; ultimately, the project’s goal was to represent the ideal modern date night at the movies for late 1930’s couples. And the outcome hit the cinematic jackpot.

Esther Victoria Blodgett is a comely farm lass, with a passion for the movies; it’s her only escape from the bleak life she leads, parented by her widowed dullard father and strict (aka wicked) aunt. Only her grandmother, an actual remnant from the pioneer era, shares her devotion to strive for something better. Granny puts her money where her mouth is, and gives Esther saved funeral cash to head west to Tinsel Town, and make her mark.

Hollywood, it turns out, isn’t exactly waiting for the determined young woman, who ends up dodging her curmudgeonly (but fatherly) landlord in a boarding house for hopefuls. Soon, she’s flopping at crashing the Movies, but excelling at flipping burgers (well, waitressing – the generally renowned unofficial thespian school of higher learning).

A gig as a hostess at a director’s party puts Esther in contact with her screen idol, Norman Maine – whose likeable, but alcohol-fried persona immediately goes on the make, although he eventually enthusiastically (and sincerely) becomes her supporter.

Maine badgers the head of the studio to test her, and the rest is, as they say, movie history. Esther, now Vicki Lester, weds Norman, he plummets, she rises, and it all ends in Greek tragedy with one of the great closing lines in any motion picture.

Janet Gaynor may have been an odd choice in 1937 for the lead in a major pic, but she’s perfect (many had already forgotten the one-time #1 star of the late silent/early talkie era). It resurrected her career, a move she chose to ignore – apparently the lady just wanted to show she could do it. And indeed, she did. March is superb as Maine, very natural (like the color) and appropriately doomed. The supporting cast, like all Selznick endeavors is A-1 (“They’re only two classes,” the Gone with the Wind producer famously said, “first class and no class.”): May Robson, Andy Devine, Adolphe Menjou, Lionel Stander, Owen Moore, Peggy Wood, Edgar Kennedy, Guinn Williams (as a posture coach!), Irving Bacon, Vince Barnett, Clara Blandick, Wade Boteler, Sidney Bracey, Helene Chadwicke, the ubiquitous George Chandler, Francis Ford, Trixie Friganza, Jonathan Hale, Olin Howard, Arthur Hoyt, I, Stanford Jolley, Chris-Pin Martin, Edwin Maxwell, Buddy Messinger, Franklin Pangborn, Marshall Neilan, Robert Emmett O’Connor, Harvey Parry, Osgood Perkins, Jed Prouty, Kay Sutton, Fred Toones, Margaret Tallichet, Clarence Wilson, and Dennis O’Keefe.

And just like moviegoers would be thrilled to see Manhattan in Nothing Sacred‘s three-strip, they additionally dropped their jaws seeing their favorite dream factory town in vibrant IB.

Urban legends have led legions of fans to postulate whom this drama was actually based upon (the “you know who they are” STAR IS BORN theorists are as prevalent as the armies of Jack the Ripper sleuths) – prime suspects being Johns Barrymore and Bowers (the big favorite), and, lethal celeb wedded couples Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay, Bernard Durning and Shirley Mason, John Gilbert and Virginia Bruce, and John McCormick and Colleen Moore. Truth be told, it was likely a smidgeon of all of them – tales of celluloid too-much-too-soon were certainly not unique.

Many industry “in-jokes” prevailed throughout the production and filming. The Oscar Vicki receives at the 8th Academy Awards is actually the Best Actress statue Gaynor won for her 1927 portrayal in 7th Heaven (the first actress to ever win an Oscar at the Awards’ debut ceremony in 1929, Gaynor actually was honored for three pics, which also included Street Angel and Sunrise).

But that wasn’t the only fun/promotion gimmick Selznick pulled. When Esther visits Grauman’s Chinese, the movie posters prominently displayed are for the producer’s first Technicolor foray The Garden of Allah.

But D.O.S. still didn’t stop there. The most fictional character in the piece is Oliver Niles, the head of the studio, ably impersonated by Adolphe Menjou. He’s a benevolent, kindly, paternal, loving, caring, just gee whiz/oh gosh wonderful guy. “Forget the cost, these are people” is his mantra, as said/thought no producer ever. Selznick proudly boasted that Niles was based on him; Parker, Hecht, and Wellman must have been laughing their respective asses off!

The wall-to-wall music is by the (then) primo movie composer Max Steiner, already (albeit briefly) prone to Mickey-Mousing riffs and themes. But the main (as opposed to Maine) attraction is still the strikingly beautiful Technicolor photography, brilliantly shot by W. Howard Greene. Choosing to keep it bright and ebullient (today, it would no doubt drably reflect the melancholy gloom of the narrative) was a correct and even more damning choice; Hell has never been more beautiful.

While Nothing Sacred performed exceedingly well, A STAR IS BORN was a Selznick blockbuster. As such, it was the first of many firsts, primarily the first Technicolor movie to receive Oscar nominations for categories other than cinematography (which it won, along with Best Writing, Original Story): Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Actress (the only movie that year to be selected for all the major awards). Interestingly enough, as the pic became an almost cottage industry standard, the three subsequent remakes all starred singer/actresses. Gaynor remains the only non-warbler.

Like Nothing Sacred, A STAR IS BORN fell into nefarious hands, and was re-issued in inferior CineColor (see last week’s column); also (as with Sacred), the movie negligently careened into public domain causing a vault of godawful 16MM dupes, video tapes, laserdiscs, and DVDs. Unlike Sacred, this title had a savior. When Warner Bros. remade the pic in 1954, they obtained the original negatives and existing prints. As early as the late 1970s, I saw embryonic CRI restorations on late-night TV, with STAR looking decent.

But those 40-year-plus attempts can’t compare with 2022’s dazzling, meticulous reconstruction/restoration. This crystal-clear High Definition Blu-Ray is spectacular in every sense of the word. The colors are rich, lush and effervescent, the mono audio strong and dynamic. If that isn’t enough to warrant a purchase, there are the numerous extras. A 1938 Technicolor Warners cartoon spoof (Friz Freleng’s A Star is Hatched) is included as a goof, plus several shorts that may have accompanied the main feature during the 1937 playdates (Mal Hallett and his Orchestra, Taking the Count, and Alibi Mark). STAR IS BORN fanatics usually cite the aforementioned 1954 Judy Garland version as the best of the lot. Didja know that she did a 1943 radio broadcast (with Walter Pidgeon as Maine), based on this production? Well, guess what, that’s included here, too (as is a September 1937 edition with Gaynor and Robert Montgomery). So, seriously, what are you waiting for!?

SIDENOTE: Back in 1966, I read one of the first mass-market movie bios – a Humphrey Bogart tome, penned by columnist Joe Hyams. He stated that the actor owned a 16MM print of the 1937 A STAR IS BORN, and would screen it often, with Baby (Bacall) finding him at the fade-out crying like a…baby.

A STAR IS BORN. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. CAT# B09R6QT69Z. SRP: $21.99.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

Yellow (and Cyan and Magenta) Journalism

MAY IS EARLY 3-STRIP TECHNICOLOR MONTH

The only American screwball comedy in Technicolor, 1937’s NOTHING SACRED finally comes to home video in a version it deserves.

As the Thirties passed the midway mark, and, as the Depression was winding down, David O. Selznick amped up his desire to see more perfected three-strip Technicolor on the worldwide screens. To the famed producer, it was time to stop just showcasing the process for the way it looked, and to integrate it into the various genres. Primarily, he wanted to crank down the “ooh-and-ahh” factor, striving for a more “natural color” look. Screwball comedies seemed a ripe choice, so he hired The Front Page‘s Ben Hecht to pen a wacky script of modern lovers. As usual, Mr. Hecht (along with James Street, from his story; plus, uncredited, Ring Lardner, Jr., Moss Hart, Budd Schulberg, George Oppenheimer, Sidney Howard, Robert Carson, Selznick himself AND director William A. Wellman – Jeez, what a load of wiseacres!) didn’t let his employer down.

In NOTHING SACRED, spinning its tale in a mere 74-minutes, we are quickly introduced to wily New York City reporter Wally Cook – a solid gold-plated tabloid dude who will stoop to any level for a story, much to the contradictory delight (circulation)/dismay (lawsuits) of his publisher/editor (wait for it), Oliver Stone. The opening, one of my favorite parts in the movie (or in ANY screwball riot) has Manhattan’s cafe society/political royalty paying tribute to the visiting Sultan of Marzipan – a banquet ruined by the arrival of the potentate’s wife and kids. “That’s him!,” she angrily points to her errant spouse, in reality a Harlem bootblack.

The backlash Cook receives (banishment to the basement-housed obits column) is likely to become vocationally lethal – unless the prank-driven writer redeems himself. Desperate, Wally discovers a six-line squib that smacks of the stuff gullible suckers’ll eat up. In Warsaw, VT, Hazel Flagg, a young woman, has been fatally exposed to radium, unhappily spending her final days hoping to spend a $200 stipend the company who poisoned the unlucky female has bestowed upon her. And she wants to do in style, along the Great White Way. Perfect, eh?

Even more so when Flagg turns out to be totally gorgeous.

Soon, Wally, Hazel and her personal physician, Dr. Downer, are planning a grand sendoff in New York City – commencing with the key to the city, unending tributes (including a deli offering extra cheese and baloney), and culminating in Hazel Flagg Day – with one small unrecorded detail. Hazel’s quack sawbones made a mistake – she ain’t kicking off.

Players being played was never so much fun…or colorful, and, indeed, moviegoers gasped in awe at the many second unit Technicolor shots of Manhattan (we do too, seeing the city in three-strip, ca. 1937).

Of course, you needed a no-nonsense, machine-gun-paced director to keep things moving, and Selznick got him with William Wellman – not known for comedies in the talkie era, but who had done some silent burlesque gems (When Husbands Flirt, The Boob, You Never Know Women, The Cat’s Pajamas). And, natch, ya needed two top leads to seamlessly bounce situations off each other – verbally and physically – from romance to one memorable moment involving fisticuffs.Enter Fredric March (Hecht originally wanted John Barrymore, but Selznick absolutely refused) and Carole Lombard (hmmm…would have been interesting to see a reunion of the Twentieth Century stars…in Technicolor), who handled rapid-fire dialog with sublime panache (Lombard’s comment/delivery to her co-conspirator doc, once she discovers the truth, and decides to ride the gravy train for all it’s worth is timing ambrosia: “It’s kind of startling to be brought to life twice – and each time in Warsaw!”).

W. Howard Greene shot the picture brilliantly, and no less than Oscar Levant scored it with an almost Gershwinian smooth sophistication (there’s even Raymond Scott quirky band music in a nightclub scene). And what a supporting cast, too! An array of 1937’s Who’s Who Character Actor Heaven, comprising Margaret Hamilton, Walter Connolly (as Stone), Charles Winninger (as Downer), Sig Ruman, Frank Fay, Maxie Rosenbloom, Olin Howard, Bobby Barber, Billy Barty, George Chandler (the director’s human good luck charm), Ann Doran, Jinx Falkenburg, Hedda Hopper, Leonid Kinskey, Charles Lane, Edwin Maxwell, Mary MacLaren, John Qualen, Aileen Pringle, Monty Woolley, Ernest Whitman, and Hattie McDaniel.

A literal image problem with this title made it a notorious item for many years. Reissues in the 1940s, when Technicolor was in high demand (and the distributor wanted to save a buck), relegated the prints to the inferior CineColor. Worse, CineColor was a two-strip process (not until 1952 would there be a SuperCineColor three-strip edition), so, without decades-later technology of CRIs (Color Reversal Intermediates), muddy, murky results were the throwback fate of a three-strip movie being reduced to two-strip. Adding to the dilemma was the fact that CineColor had no emulsion – it was double-sided base, which rendered the images soft to boot. More indignation when this title fell into public domain and dupes of dupes of dupes from 16MM CineColor flooded the market, incorrectly causing armchair movie archivists to conclude that early color sucked. Lombard’s cautious quote during production (that color can make you “look screwy”) didn’t aid the dilemma.

Well, hold on to your hats, folks, cause Kino-Lorber, has secured a new 2K scanned 35MM master, restored from the original fine grain elements. It is truly the best version of NOTHING SACRED that I’ve ever seen! In addition to the outstanding video, there’s excellent supplemental audio commentary by William Wellman, Jr., and, the theatrical trailer).

While NOTHING SACRED isn’t my favorite screwball comedy, it’s definitely up there. And for fans of the stars, Technicolor, and the era, this Blu-Ray’s a must!

NOTHING SACRED. Color. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics. CAT # K23099. SRP: $29.95.

Hey, collectors, click on Kino-Lorber’s site to take advantage of a sale currently offering this wonderful Blu-Ray at 80% OFF! https://www.klstudioclassics.com/search?q=film%7C%7CNothing+Sacred+%28Restored+Version%29&dvd=off&dvd=on&bluray=off&bluray=on

Oooh Allah!

MAY IS EARLY 3-STRIP TECHNICOLOR MONTH

Just as so many moviegoers were curious as to how their favorite stars sounded during the talkie revolution, many cinema fans were equally piqued about how their glam gods and goddesses looked in color. This fact did not escape David O. Selznick, who cast Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer in his 1936 opus THE GARDEN OF ALLAH (the producer’s first foray into three-strip), now on Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics.

The movie, based on the controversial (albeit absurd) novel by Richard Hichens (and scripted by W.P. Lipscomb and Lynn Riggs, with uncredited assist from associate producer Willis Goldbeck) concerns Domini Enfilden, a convent-reared beauty, who, upon her’s father’s death (a widower she cared for dearly), retreats to the vastness of the Sahara…to find peace. Once there, she meets Boris Androvsky; little does the religiously-guided lass know that this strange dude who is getting her juices flowing is a guilt-ridden disgraced Trappist monk, who has eschewed his vows, and retreated to the desert…and found one helluva piece!

Add some Arabian treachery and nearly 80 minutes of awesome three-strip vistas (with Yuma, AZ and Buttercup Dunes, CA subbing for the Sahara), and you got the makings of a high-priced budgeted freak show extraordinaire.

To backtrack a bit, Selznick, upon seeing the tests for perfected Technicolor, went totally ga-ga over three-strip, even decreeing that all his future productions would be shot in the process; it would be a notoriously bad decision, costing him a number of important projects – most notably John Ford’s Stagecoach. Still, color prevailed long enough for him to envision what a book like Gone with the Wind might look like if the grays could properly be contrasted with the blues. Already, a key GWTW cornerstone Selznick crew was in place for ALLAH, including set designer Lyle Wheeler, composer Max Steiner, plus a barrage of color consultants who, collectively, put style over content, creating a spectacular IB feature-length test reel that virtually demanded that viewers disregard the prejudicial, right-wing religious bosh of the lip-biting scenario.

Another GWTW run-through was the search for the leads. No less than Joan Crawford and Merle Oberon were considered/tested for Domini before Dietrich was signed. And Robert Taylor, Fredric March, George Brent, Laurence Olivier, Robert Donat, Ivor Novello, Gilbert Roland, and Jean Gabin did likewise for Boris before Boyer got the news. George Cukor was, at one point, listed as director, but these chores eventually went to Richard Bowleslawski, a strange choice as he was generally known for comedies, intentional and unintentional (Theodora Goes Wild, Hollywood Party, Rasputin and the Empress, The Painted Veil).

The remaining cast of (literally) colorful characters include C. Aubrey Smith, Alan Marshall, Lucile Watson, Pedro de Cordoba, Nigel De Brulier, Helen Jerome Eddy, Robert Frazer, Frederick Gottschalk, Leonid Kinskey, Mary MacLaren, Michael Mark, and Frank Puglia. Young convent girls rhapsodizing over Domini’s breathtaking looks comprise Ann Gillis, Bonita Granville, Marcia Mae Jones, and prominently Dietrich’s daughter Maria Riva (their squealing line “Isn’t she beautiful?” was likely suggested by Marlene).

The lusty, animalistic dancer Tilly Losch makes her debut in an early, memorable sequence, writhing amok in an extremely sensual display; she would repeat that in spades for Selznick super Technicolor western Duel in the Sun, in 1946. And if one oily personification of smarmy villainy wasn’t enough, Selznick gave this show more dastardly mountebanks than you can shake a Technicolor stick at, aka, Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Joseph Schildkraut, and Henry Brandon.

For Boyer, this was an early plum role (indeed, he seems to be the only one turning in a performance); for Dietrich (essentially portraying a human mannequin for Ernest Dryden’s sensational frocks), it was a career move she almost immediately regretted – not that she had a choice. After two Josef von Sternberg mega-flops at Paramount (The Scarlet Empress, The Devil is a Woman), Marlene was treading deep water. Sternberg already got his walking papers, and was kicked out of the elegant studio – his next stop being Columbia! Dietrich hung on by a thread called Desire, a Frank Borzage comedy, produced by Lubitsch, which proved to be a sizable hit. Yet, post-Code, her charms were certainly compromised (imagine what this plot could have been like three years earlier!).

The striking use of locations didn’t help. Practically before she set one over-priced tootsie upon the Salton basin, Dietrich was bitching about the heat. And she wasn’t necessarily wrong. Without the array of her approximately 9000 costume changes, the temps, occasionally rising to 112 degrees, would be unbearable. Add the generator-driven hot movie lights – made worse by Technicolor cameras requiring even more illumination, and it was purgatory.

But it didn’t stop there. Marlene disliked horses, remarking on their smell, their attracting armies of flies, and the fact that they could kill you. Her erotic riding scenes were shortened, and those mostly achieved by stunt doubles.

The worst target of Marlene’s malice was costar Boyer – by no fault of his own. Dietrich spared him nothing, mouthing off to anyone who would listen about his “tewibble toupee”! Apparently, the intense heat caused the already-balding actor’s hairpiece to open front end, with warm “towents” of sweat cascading over La Dietrich’s punim.

Sternberg-deprived, she would often bemoan out loud “Where’s my Joe?” to deaf ears and pissed off smelly, fly-friendly equines.

Like it’s recent predecessors, ALLAH‘s celebrated faces took a backseat to the glories of Technicolor, as rendered by three masters of photography: W. Howard Greene, Harold Rosson, and (uncredited) Virgil Miller (the former two winning a special Oscar for their endeavors). The visuals far outweigh the narrative (including such immortal dialog as “You come a land of fire, and, I think, you ARE fire!”), and are, as we often fondly state, drop dead gorgeous. With every new production, three-strip was becoming more advanced; the difference between ALLAH and Dancing Pirate (released the same year) is like night and day.

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of THE GARDEN OF ALLAH is a knockout, faithfully rendering a hues-and-tones facsimile of what the 1936 excitement was all about, certainly the most expensive IB pic for the then-new process to-date. Herbert Kalmus’s Technicolor company fared best for all the production’s grueling toils…as evidenced by the reception. Long story short, Technicolor got the lion’s share of the reviews, and while ALLAH, at least initially, did a fairly brisk business, it could come nowhere near to recouping the pic’s massive costs. Dietrich would continue to plummet in popularity polls until 1939’s Destry Rides Again permanently resurrected her from the Box-Office Poison list. Her last word on Technicolor, ALLAH, and the company that released it (United Artists) would come several months later. UA invited the star to attend the premiere of the Disney’s Snow White, the first animated feature in three-strip. Besieged by the press upon exiting the theater, her response was classic Marlene: “Big deal,” she shrugged, “it’s a cartoon!”

Selznick was undaunted, however, and eagerly planned more Technicolor vehicles for his upcoming release schedule. But that’s for another time (like next week).

THE GARDEN OF ALLAH. Color. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics. CAT# K22826. SRP: $29.95.

Beyond the Blue Horizon

MAY IS EARLY 3-STRIP TECHNICOLOR MONTH

To celebrate the dawn of perfected Technicolor, we’ve chosen the colorful month of May to herald the release of a handful of mid-Thirties’ titles filmed in the then-new process, and recently released on Blu-Ray and DVD.

First up is the incredibly obscure, but historically important 1936 release, DANCING PIRATE, the first three-strip Technicolor musical (or, more precisely, “dancing musical,” as it was lauded), now available from The Film Detective.

Even while two-strip briefly flourished (in highlighted sequences and rare full-length features throughout the silent and early talkie era), Technicolor head Herbert Kalmus was forever tinkering around to further improve the process. Two-strip went through various evocations, including the actual cementing of two strips of film (magenta and yellow) before imbibition allowed the printing to be done on a single strand of 35MM stock. Still, the results varied – from pleasing to strange and bizarre (which is why it was usually reserved for musical numbers once sound arrived, or, more famously, for horror like Dr. X and Mystery of the Wax Museum). As far back as the mid-1920’s, Kalmus was experimenting with three-strip, usually hampered by his not winning over enough backers to make his vision a reality.

Indeed, the Technicolor story is a fascinating one, and would make a great movie in and of itself, with as much nasty corporate intrigue as Wall Street, The Hucksters, Executive Suite, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Wolf of Wall Street, or an entire season of Mad Men…yeah, it’s that mysterious, double-dealing and shady (the behind-the-scenes Disney stuff alone…oh, never mind).

By the beginning of the 1930s, Technicolor took a dive when audiences tired of musicals, and producers tired of the expense (not helped by the Great Depression); but three-strip was on the way, and the initial tests looked gorgeous. The biggest problem had been solved: rendering the color “blue,” or “cyan,” as the IB folks chose to call it. This also enabled the process to fully encompass day and night photography – the latter always previously a particularly difficult chore.

Once lawsuits had been resolved (did I mention “Disney”?), Kalmus interested Sam Goldwyn, who filmed the final sequence of the Eddie Cantor musical Kid Millions in three-strip. It took place in an ice-cream factory, and the nervous “yes men” in the screening room could barely look at the mogul – until they heard him audibly drooling “Mmmmmm, strawberry!”

Movie producers, explorers and entrepreneurs Merian C. Cooper and John Hay Whitney went further by contracting Technicolor to film the first full-length feature in three-strip, Becky Sharp, an adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, starring Miriam Hopkins and directed by Rouben Mamoulian. While critics were divided as to the movie’s worth as pure screen drama, everyone was ga-ga over its physical presence. Perfected Technicolor had exploded in a rainbow tsunami. Under their banner Pioneer Pictures, Cooper, Whitney, and John Speaks searched for a follow-up (Paramount had already decided to shoot a remake of Trail of the Lonesome Pine on-location – the first outdoor movie in IB). Long story short, Pioneer’s second feature had to be a first (they had already done a mini-musical short, La Cucuracha). Since they were operating through RKO (Cooper’s old haunt, the one from where he made King Kong, and, equally relevant, a studio where he subsequently, albeit briefly, had been head of production), Fred Astaire seemed like a good Technicolor bet. So, the first dancing three-strip musical, brilliantly entitled DANCING PIRATE, would be the second Pioneer IB feature. They immediately hit a snag when Astaire took one look at the script (by Ray Harris and Francis Edward Faragoh, adapted by Jack Wagner and Boris Ingster – from Emma Lindsay Squier’s 1930 story Glorious Buccaneer) and promptly refused. Undaunted, Pioneer combed the theater stages and music halls and scooped up Charles Collins. He would be supported by Steffi Duna, Frank Morgan, Luis Alberni, Victor Varconi, Cy Kendall, Jack La Rue, and Marjorie Reynolds; also in the cast were the Royal Cansino Dancers, featuring Rita Cansino before her last name was changed to Hayworth.

The screenplay quality (concerning a shanghaied Boston dance instructor ending up in old California, ca. 1820) certainly mirrored another major creative choice; instead of an A-list director, like Mamoulian, the producers sought to save a dime by hiring competent Lloyd Corrigan, better known as a jovial character actor. The rest of the credits, however, were non-negotiable. Soon-to-be Technicolor expert (and nine-time Oscar nominee) William V. Skall (The Little Princess, Reap the Wild Wind, Rope, Joan of Arc, the latter winning him an Academy Award) won the coveted position of d.p., working closely with Ray Rennahan, (who had been with Technicolor since 1923); art/set, and costume design by Wiard Ihnen and Eugene Joseff, and choreography by Russell Lewis (who was Oscar-nominated) appended the visuals. The all-important music, under direction of Alfred Newman, comprised a Rodgers and Hart score, truthfully, not their finest moment – as colorless a contrast as the movie is colorful.

Almost immediately, it’s easy to see why Astaire bolted. The fact that Collins, aka Jonathan Pride, becomes the title character by default doesn’t stop the local gentry from wanting to hang him. He is saved by his Terpsichore skills – ample proof he ain’t no pirate; sadly, unlike Astaire, he ain’t no movie star either (even with a pasted-on Douglas Fairbanks mustache). There’s a B-movie subplot where corrupt Spanish military officials attempt to ravage the community and female costar Duna. You can pretty much figure out what happens, and how it all ends.

To paraphrase Gold Hat in Treasure of Sierra Madre, “we dunt need no stinkin’ screenplay. We’ve got three-strip Technicolor!” And, yesiree, the hues and tones were the authentic stars of this saga. Falling in love with the capabilities of three-strip IB might have been a mistake, though; there’s way too much footage devoted to nighttime shenanigans. But, again, in 1936, it didn’t seem to matter; the oohs and aahs had ’em lining up around the block.

For the most part, the Film Detective restoration of DANCING PIRATE is clean, sharp and (when daylight allows) ebullient. Previously only available in black-and-white or murky CineColor 16MM prints, the three-strip materials were long-thought lost until a 35MM nitrate print was discovered in 2015. A few jump cuts (nicely digitally-cleansed) are evident where the footage no longer exists; not a prob, these tally up to mere seconds. Extras include audio commentary by Jennifer Churchill and two mini-documentaries: Glorious Pioneers: The Birth of Technicolor of and Ambushed by Mediocrity: Remembering The Dancing Pirate.

For me, the best part of the picture encompasses the opening sequences where Collins/Pride teaches untalented pupils how to waltz; it’s the most Astaire (and grownup) moment, and also beautifully lit and shot (it should be noted that one of the young would-be twinkletoes is Pat Nixon!).

By the following year, all the majors were planning three-strip endeavors, and Kalmus & Co. never had to look back.

At 83 minutes, this is an interesting way to spend a movie night; for Technicolor fans and classic cinema buffs, however, it’s a MUST.

DANCING PIRATE. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Film Detective. CAT # FB1018. SRP: $24.95.