Cary Grant in Red Bank NJ, May 1986

Cary Grant and his fifth wife Barbara, circa 1986.

I was lucky enough to be at one of Cary Grant’s final public appearances. I filed this account on deadline:

May 16, 1986

WITH AN ELEGANT TWINKLE, A STAR CHARMS RED BANK

By LOU LUMENICK

RED BANK [N.J.] — It was billed as “A Conversation with Cary Grant” but mostly the standing-room only crowd wanted to say, “We love you, Cary.”

And they did, over and over for two hours at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank last night.

And if the 1,600 audience members barely seemed to believe that the debonair superstar was in the heart of Springsteen territory, Grant seems equally unable to accept it at face value the standing ovations and gratitude for his presence.

“Truthfully, there’s nothing to cope with,” Grant replied when someone asked how he dealt with four decades of audience adulation. “I don’t know what’s in anyone else’s mind. Even if that adulation does exist, I question it. We all do what we do.”

Between graciously accepting compliments, Grant answered dozens of questions about his career and his private life — or more accurately, took issue with most published accounts of his private life.

“I’ve had five biographies written about me, and none of those authors have spoken to me. Very, very seldom has truth been told about those of us in the entertainment field.”

Grant politely dismissed Sophie Loren’s report that he proposed to her: “I don’t know that strictly true, but it’s a nice thing for her to have said. It’s the women stars who tend to write about these things. I don’t know any men who write books about affairs.”

Grant let out his devil-make-care laugh when a woman in the audience remembered meeting him on a transatlantic crossing in 1938 — and that he told her he was having a “trial marriage” with the actress [Mary Brian] with whom he was traveling.

“Oh, the things people think they remember you saying!” Grant deadpanned to a delighted audience.

Dressed in a conservative well-cut gray suit and black loafers and looking at least a decade younger than his 82 years, Grant sat on a bar stool on a bare stage. After showing a generous selection of clips from old films ranging from “Bringing Up Baby” to “North by Northwest,” he answered even the silliest questions with unflagging good humor.

On the computer-generated coloring of his old black-and-white movies: “I though ‘Topper’ turned out very well, true to the way I remembered the sets and costumes being when we made the film. I think ‘Gunga Din’ will be good in color.”

On “Arsenic and Old Lace”: “The only time I worked with Frank Capra and it turned out disastrousy. I overreacted terribly.”

On his personal appearances: “I do them where and when I can, usually in out-of-the-way places. I don’t do them in big cities like Los Angeles or New York. It would just frighten me.”

The Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank in the 1930s, when it was known as the Carlton. Grant said he had appeared there in vaudeville in the 1920s.

On why he doesn’t want to run for president: “I’ve been married quite a few times, and the voters wouldn’t accept that.” (Being British born, he is also quite ineligible.)

On his role models: “In my day, Noel Coward and Jack Buchanan. Later, I most admired Spencer Tracy. Mickey Rooney is another actor I think is brilliant.”

On what he finds attractive in a woman: “Her lack of artifice. I don’t like an abundance of makeup or perfume. I like a woman to come on straight.”

On whether he’d consider ending his 20-year retirement as an actor: “I’m not interested in purveying fantasy. I know who’s going to get the girl — the guy on the billboard. I’m just no longer interested, and it was a natural evolution for me to move onto other things.”

On his height: “6-1 1/2 and shrinking.”

On Grace Kelly: “She was he best actress I ever worked with in my life. I learned later from Alfred Hitchcock that they were both Jesuit-trained, which may have explained their serenity.”

Grant’s appearance last night, a benefit for the Monmouth Arts Council, was sold out more than a week in advance. No photographs were allowed, and Grant refused, as he usually does, to sign autographs: “They’re ridiculous, and it starts a chain reaction. Once I started signing them, I wouldn’t be able to do anything else all day.”

Virtually all the questions from the predominately female, middle-aged audience were prefaced by lengthy effusions.

“I’m 23, and I want to know why men like you don’t exist today,” said one woman.

“Well, nobody exists like anybody else,” Grant explained, and he explained his screen persona: “It all looks so easy — you’re being yourself under the most perverse of circumstances.”

Grant likened his stardom to a streetcar ride, and said that 20 years ago, it was his time to get off. Since then, he has served on the boards of several corporations, including MGM and Faberge. Jennifer, his 19-year-old only child, is a sophomore at Stamford, and Grant has been married for five years to his fifth wife, Barbara, “the most organized woman I’ve ever known.”

Grant’s hair is white now, but he still proved capable of holding an audience spellbound with his charm.

“I tried to copy the actors who dressed well, who could put their hands in their pockets with a certain amount of shyness and timidity. I guess to a certain extent, I eventually became the characters I was playing.”

2015 Postscript: Cary Grant passed away on Nov. 29, 1986 while preparing for Q-and-A appearance at the Adler Theatre in Davenport, Iowa. The day after that, CBS broadcast a previously scheduled “All Star Party for Clint Eastwood.” This had been taped earlier in the year, and included a rare TV appearance by Grant. Here it is:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZz19dLIqq0

25 years ago this month, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ left the public domain

 

A quarter of a century ago, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was ubiquitous on TV and in video stores, the most beloved public-domain film of them all. That all ended in June 1993, when Republic Pictures’ sent out dozens of cease-and-desist letters to video distributions, TV syndicators 
and individual stations that had exploited the film’s public-domain status for royalty-free showings (often with terrible copies) after its copyright status expired in 1974. Apparently it wasn’t renewed, as then required, because of a paperwork snafu.

Republic successfully asserted ownership based on underlying active copyrights on the film’s original story (Philip Van Doren Stern) and its score (Dmitri Tiomkin). The film made its NY TV debut April 7, 1956 on WCBS’ “The Late Show” via M & A Alexander,  a TV syndicator that purchased it from Paramount, which had acquired “It’s a Wonderful Life” along with Liberty Pictures’ other assets. Alexander was merged into NTA, which became Republic and itself was folded into original owner Paramount. There have been licensed annual exclusive showings on NBC since December 10, 1994  as well as only authorized editions on DVD and Blu-ray.

Here’s a piece I published on June 15, 1993 in The Record of Hackensack, New Jersey:

You’ve heard of the Grinch that stole Christmas.

Now Republic Pictures, which let “It’s a Wonderful Life” lapse into
the public domain by failing to renew its copyright 18 years ago, wants
to take it back.

If the studio’s lawyers prevail, Frank Capra’s movie will no
longer receive marathon showings on a dozen channels at Christmastime,
and it may no longer be possible to buy video versions on more than
three dozen different labels for as little as $3.99.

Republic announced Monday that it was seeking to corner the “It’s a
Wonderful Life” market on the basis of the rights to Dimitri Tiomkin’s
musical score, which it just acquired, as well its ownership of screen
rights to the short story on which the 1947 movie is based. Russell
Goldsmith, the company’s chief executive officer, said the move would
allow Republic “to preserve and protect the integrity” of the film,
which has been seen in unauthorized copies of widely varying quality.

James P. Tierney, a Los Angeles attorney representing the company,
said he had sent out more than 500 letters on Friday to video
distributors, video stores, tape duplicators, TV stations, and networks.
The letter threatened suits if they don’t stop copying, selling,
renting, or showing versions licensed by Republic, as well as seeking
damages for past infringements.

Tierney said he had received 15 phone calls on Monday and “everyone
uniformly agreed to respect Republic’s rights.”

He said company officials had not acted earlier to protect the
film because “they were not clear” on points of the copyright law.

“Republic has been selling videos from their original negatives and
licensing them to television for years,” he said. “A lot of these
pirates were making copies from second- and third-generation prints, and
selling people defective copies.”

If Republic files suit against other vendors of “It’s a Wonderful
Life,” the case will mirror one brought recently by John Wayne’s son,
Patrick. The younger Wayne, who failed to renew the copyright on his
father’s 1961 movie “McClintock,” which the family owned, is suing
Goodtimes, a video company which brought out a public-domain version of
the film simultaneously with a Wayne-authorized version on MPI Video.
Wayne, too, contends that he controls the movie through music
copyrights.

The original 28-year copyright for “It’s a Wonderful Life” expired
in 1975, but Republic failed to file for a 28-year renewal, as the
copyright law then allowed. Like hundreds of other movies with lapsed
copyrights — the original “A Star Is Born” (1937) and “Royal Wedding”
(1950), with Fred Astaire, are two examples — “It’s a Wonderful Life”
entered the public domain. This meant, essentially, that anyone who
could get hold of a copy could show, rent, sell, or copy the movie
without paying a cent to Republic, which retained ownership of the
original negative.

The movie’s new status did not go unnoticed by PBS stations, some
of which were showing it six or seven times a season by the early 1980s.
It also became highly cost-effective programming for the burgeoning
cable-television and home-video industries. Public-domain titles are not
generally tracked by the industry, but home-video experts believe that
in all of its various versions — including at least two colorized ones —
“It’s a Wonderful Life” may well be the single best-selling video title
of all time.

From 1994: Leonard Maltin, Jersey boy.

In honor of “Leonard Maltin Day” in Los Angeles, here’s an interview I did with him in 1994 for the Bergen Record, part of a series called “Jersey People” that in wrote in the final months before I went back to work for the New York Post. This was at least the fourth interview I did with Leonard. The first was conducted in 1980, when he was still living in Manhattan, before moving to Los Angeles.

 

Leonard Maltin was a so-so student.

“I was the only student in the history of Teaneck High School to fail a take-home, open-book exam,” he says with a mixture of pride and embarrassment.

He also wasn’t much of an athlete.

“I went to the Westmont Swim Club’s day camp one summer, and I was the only one who was always rooting for a rainy day,” he remembered recently over brunch at his parents’ home in Teaneck.

Why a rainy day? Anybody who’s seen Maltin on “Entertainment Tonight” or read any of his two dozen books can probably guess the answer.

“Because then,” he said with a familiar smile, “they showed movies.”

And movies are what made Leonard Maltin a star.

The revenge of this self-described movie nerd has spread to virtually all media.

Maltin can be read, seen, or heard on radio, videocassettes, on-line services, and CD-ROM. Last month, the 25th-anniversary edition of his landmark movie guide was published, complete with new versions for floppy disc and the Apple Newton. “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encylopedia” hits bookstores this month, and he has a special on Canadian animation airing Oct. 27 on the A&E cable network.

“My son has been very, very lucky,” said Maltin’s father Aaron, a retired immigration judge. “He has spent his entire life doing exactly what he wanted to do.”

Maltin’s mother Jacqueline, a former nightclub singer, remembered with a chuckle that back in the 1950s, she tried to pry her pre-adolescent son (he’s now 43) away from TV, where he had developed an early infatuation with Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, and Disney cartoons.

“Why do you want to stay indoors on such a beautiful day?” she remembered asking him over and over, to little avail. “I wasted a fortune on tennis lessons for him.”

Young Leonard dabbled in journalism as early as the fifth grade at the Eugene Field Elementary School, publishing a three-page newspaper called the Bergen Bulletin on a mimeograph machine. Early issues contained cartoons and jokes — but Leonard being Leonard, it quickly evolved into a newsletter about movies.

By the time he was 13, Maltin was conducting interviews by mail with celebrities such as Buster Keaton and writing articles for Film Fan Monthly, an amateur “fanzine” published in Vancouver. He wasn’t paid. Two years later, he “bought” the magazine for $175.

“The owner had $400 in the treasury, so he sent me a check for $225, a bunch of back issues, and the list of 400 subscribers,” he recalled.

Maltin published Film Fan Monthly out of his parents’ house virtually single-handedly from 1966 to 1974.

“That was the end of my ability to do anything in school,” said Maltin, who somehow graduated from New York University with a journalism degree, handing in freelance assignments as class papers. He then taught — film, what else — for nine years at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. He went on to curate programs at the Museum of Modern Art.

But back in the early 1960s, Maltin was thoroughly immersed in the cult of amateur film collectors who showed battered 16mm films in their homes and other rented spaces. You were allowed to bring your friends, but the main point of etiquette was that the invitees were obliged to stay until the end of the movie, no matter how awful.

“Remember that terrible Joel McCrea movie you made me sit through?” Jacqueline Maltin asked her son, recalling a trip perhaps 30 years ago to a seedy screening room behind the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which occasionally was raided by police looking for porno movies.

” `The Great Moment,'” her son replied.

“He said, `But Mom, we can’t leave. I pleaded. But he wouldn’t let me leave.”

On other occasions, Maltin and his friends would attend screenings at the East Rutherford home of John Griggs, a crotchety old character who had amassed a formidable collection of silent movies.

“One night, he had rented `Mutiny on the Bounty’ and it was getting quite late. It was past our curfew, and I had to call for my mother to pick us up.

“He was beside himself. He finally said, `All right, go. But you haven’t even seen the mutiny.'”

Maltin also created a film society at Teaneck High School, “renting from a guy and his mother out of their home in Fair Lawn. Their most expensive rental was $15, and they had a $4 budget line that included titles like [Alfred Hitchcock’s] `The 39 Steps.’ My friend Louis said, `Gee, that’s 10 cents a step! ”

Maltin’s obsession did not escape the notice of the faculty. An English teacher introduced him to an editor he knew at the New American Library (now Signet), who was so impressed with his knowledge that he signed the 17-year-old to write his movie guide, originally known as “Movies on TV” and now known as “Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.”

Though he later wrote books on Disney cartoons and other movie subjects, it was this comprehensive guide that put him on the map — at least among movie buffs, who have been known to read the thick paperback on the subway or in bed. (The new edition covers 19,000 titles in its 1,580 pages, compared with 8,000 in the original.) It has become a standard reference work, used by most newspapers (including this one) and magazines in the United States, as well as in the movie and
television industries.

The various editions have sold more than 4 million copies.

“That might sound like a lot,” said the modest Maltin. “But around the time we broke the 100,000 mark, the movie-tie version of `The Omen’ sold 3.25 million copies. That sort of puts it in perspective.”

Maltin attributes the book’s enduring popularity (and a raft of imitators) to two events that occurred more or less simultaneously. They were his hiring toward the end of the first season of “Entertainment Tonight” in 1982 and the rise of home video, which eventually made thousands of movie titles available for sale and rental — and made his book all but indispensable, even for people who didn’t watch “The Late, Late Show.”

“Suddenly, my publisher was on the phone, wanting to put my name above the title and my picture on the cover. Before `E.T.,’ I could have got down on my knees and begged and they wouldn’t have done that.”

With his bespectacled, bearded, ordinary-guy looks, Maltin may not be as glitzy as the rest of the “E.T.” crew. But he is the senior surviving cast member; Mary Hart joined the show a few weeks after him. During most of his tenure, he has functioned as a film historian. But recently the show, which has been extensively revamped in recent weeks, asked him to review movies for the first time in seven years.

“It’s not something I was prepared for, or particularly wanted to do,” he says. “But this show has always been reinventing itself. I’ve been through seven different producers, a couple of whom wanted to get rid of me.”

While “E.T.” is Maltin’s home base, he frequently works at home. He and his wife, Alice, who has functioned as his producer for several TV documentaries, have plenty to keep them busy besides their 8-year-old daughter, Jessica.

Maltin, who co-authored a book on “The Little Rascals” 20 years ago with Richard W. Bann (recently reissued to tie in with the movie remake), was commissioned last year to do the introductions for a series of restored “Our Gang” comedies. They’re on the video sales bestseller list — not bad for 60-year-old shorts that Maltin said Blockbuster Video, the nation’s largest chain, wouldn’t even stock.

Maltin, who lives in Los Angeles but visits Teaneck several times a year, observes that being the country’s best-known movie nut “mostly feels nice.”

As with any celebrity, sometimes people take potshots at him. A profile of filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen in Playboy magazine this spring began with a lengthy contemplation of his derriere. He happened to be interviewing the Coens just before the Playboy writer.

“What story was that?” his mother interrupted when the subject was broached.

“Tell you about it later, Mom,” Maltin said, turning back to the interview.

“At first I was upset,” he said with a smile. “Then the engineer for my radio program found this story in one of the supermarket tabloids with the headline, `The Bigger Your Butt, the Smarter You Are.’ So I cut it out and sent it to Hugh Hefner.”

Mainly, though, Maltin views his celebrity as a means to meet the bigger, invariably older celebrities he still idolizes with the zeal of a 15-year-old. His eyes opened wide as he recounted recently attending a birthday party for Clayton Moore, TV’s Lone Ranger. The guests included legendary cowboy star Gene Autry, who told Maltin about a 26-city tour he undertook to promote one of his films.

“He would stay in a different city every night and arrange to receive the keys to the city from the mayor and be interviewed by the local paper early in the morning. He made sure the stories appeared in that night’s paper. After that, I wasn’t going to complain about my little book tours.”

Is Leonard Maltin interested in anything but movies?

He plays the piano, and he and his wife occasionally tear themselves away from at-home screenings — 16mm, not video, is the preferred medium — to frequent Los Angeles jazz clubs. (His brother, Bud, who also lives in Teaneck, has his own jazz band.)

“And once in a while, I manage to sneak a jazz piece onto `E.T.'”

Adds his father: “Sometimes he takes me along, and I get to meet people like Steve Allen. It’s a very nice perk of being Leonard’s father.”

Asks Leonard: “How can you put a value on experiences like that? It’s like living in Disneyland.”

February 26, 1963: WCBS goes to all-night movies

Newsday, February 4, 1963.

Tonight’s landmark in the history of theatrical motion pictures on television is one of my favorites. WCBS, the once-mighty CBS flagship, became the first New York City television station with (nearly) 24-hour broadcasts, showing movies from 11:30 pm till dawn (more or less) beginning 55 years ago.

Extended hours were nothing new for some west coast stations, which began offering film series with names like “Swing Shift Theater” as early as the 1950s. Even the CBS-owned station in Philadelphia somehow beat WCBS to the punch with multiple entries of “The Late Late Show” on the same night.

WCBS had offered the longest broadcast day of any New York City station since the 1951 introduction of “The Late Late Show,” which originally aired only on Friday and Saturday nights, despite the fact that the city had a substantial population of shift workers who got off work in the middle of the night (including yours truly, who got off work around 2 am at both The New York Post and the Bergen Record at various points in the 1970s).

Warners’ 1944 answer to “The More the Merrier” was the first film on the extended “Late Late Show” on April 26, 1963. Its 102 minute run time in theaters would translate to approximately 2 hours on TV after commercials were added.

Thanks to libraries full of relatively short films sourced largely from Poverty Row studios, Channel 2 managed to sign off by 2 a.m. on most “Late Late Show” nights in the early years. A notable exception occurred on New Year’s Eve 1952, when midnight coverage of the ball drop in Times Square was followed at 12:05 a.m. by the all-star epic “Forever and a Day,” which was repeated at 2 a.m. Presumably, the station was on the air until  around 4.

Running times got much longer after WCBS began showing hundreds of newly-acquired films from MGM in December 1956 and Warner Bros. the following month. You might have guessed that Channel 2 would call it a night after the April 5, 1957 debut of the massively long MGM musical “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936) on “The Late Show.” But no, it was followed at 2:30 a.m. by “Key Witness.” (Columbia, 1946). Then there was five minutes of “The Late Late News” at 3:45 and another five of  “Give Us This Day,” with signoff finally arriving just before 4 again.

The 1963 expansion of “The Late Late Show” was timed to coincide with the 12th anniversary of “The Late Show.” according to an announcement that was covered in the Long Island newspaper Newsday. At the time, New York City was in the midst of a 111-day newspaper strike and lockout that shut down all seven mainstream papers, so this historic event didn’t receive as much coverage as it much have otherwise. (Except on Channel 2, which had began running daily reminders of the upcoming schedule on its evening news. I vividly recall noticing with astonishment that that the Fox musical “Hello, Frisco, Hello” was airing very either very late one night or very early one morning.)

Because of the strike, The New York Times didn’t get around to covering the expanded “The Late Late Show” until April 7.

At the time, Channel 2 had something called called “College of the Air” airing at 6 a.m. on weekdays, so on most nights the final “Late Late Show” would end somewhere in the vicinity 5:30, still followed by news, “Give Us This Day” and signoff. Vintage TV listings I’ve studied don’t precisely document this, but veteran viewers have written that sometimes as few as five minutes elapsed before Channel 2 signed on again, followed by “Give Us This Day” and news. “College of the Air” did not air on Saturday and Sunday and “Sunrise Semester” (which aired at 6:30 weekdays) did not start until 7:30 a.m. on weekends, so “The Late Late Show” often ran past 7 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings, at least from 1963 to around the end of the decade.

Newsday listing for the evening of Friday March 1, 1963, when WCBS showed five films from 11:30 pm until around 7 a.m on Saturday morning. If the listing is accurate, there were about 5 minutes of commercials during both “Honeymoon” and “Code,” which was light for an era when there were generally around 10 minutes of ads per hour of film, eventually much more in late night.

 

WCBS had a substantial number of short pre-’48 B features (60 minutes, give or take) from Warner Bros., Paramount and Universal under license at this point, so in the very earliest years of its all-night broadcasting, they often offered “The Late Late Show,” “The Late Late Show II” and “The Late Late Show III” on weeknights. (“College of the Air” was quickly given the heave-ho, allowing the broadcast day to begin with “Sunrise Semester” at 6:30). Depending on the lengths of films, on some Friday and Saturday nights, there was even “The Late Late Show IV,” as it was identified in the New York Times listings. I’ve seen some of the latter starting as late as 6:05 a.m. on a Sunday morning, which would normally qualify as a Sunday listing. The Times carried as part of the Saturday night schedule.

A WCBS spokesperson admitted to the New York Times they deliberately didn’t give an end time for the last “Late Late Show” because it might discourage some viewers. This 1946 sequel ran 89 minutes in theaters, so if it started at 5:10 it would end pretty close to 7 am after commercials were factored in and there were no cuts.

 

During this period, WCBS often showed as many as four movies on Saturday afternoons when there weren’t sports preemptions — hour-long features at 2, 3 and 4 o’clock, followed by “Life of Riley” or “Love That Bob” at 5 and a 75-minute Saturday edition of “The Early Show” (it ran 90 on weekdays). So there were as many as eight movies on those days with a total running time (including commercials) of approximately 11 1/2 hours (or nearly half the broadcast day).

Of course, this couldn’t last in the long run. The increasing average length of films that WCBS showed in late-night, with ever-larger number of commercials, reduced the number of films that could be shown. There were also CBS network incursions into late night, beginning with some late-night NFL games on Saturday nights in the late ’60s. CBS pitted “The Merv Griffin” versus “The Tonight Show” in 1969, which pushed “The Late Show” to a 1:10 a.m. start. That was followed in 1972 by the ever-expanding “CBS Late Movie” (which included off-network reruns of shows like “M*A*S*H,” “Kojak” and “Columbo”) and was renamed “CBS Late Night,” the unfortunate “Pat Sajak Show” (1989-1990) and “Crime Time After Prime Time.”

For some of us, the ultimate indignity came when CBS repurposed the “Late Show” name for David Letterman’s talk show in 1993, which was followed by another CBS talk show called (oh, the horror) “The Late Late Show.” By that point, the uber-cheap “CBS News Overnight” had reduced CBS’ once-vaunted library to a few minor Warner titles like “Hotel” and made-for-TV films that were played off on Friday nights. The station’s Saturday nights were already given over to the likes of “American Gladiator,” the weekend edition of “Entertainment Tonight” and infomercials.

I could have bought this poster for $100 in the early 1970s. God knows what it’s worth now.

But there was this great and glorious period when I would often get up in the middle of the night to watch movies on WCBS. I spent half a century ruing the morning during high school that I slept through the alarm on the night they aired “The County Doctor” (1936), a Fox epic starring the Dionne Quintuplets. It remained stubbornly unavailable for decades, finally arriving on DVD a few years ago (after I suggested it to the Fox Cinema Archives). When I was a teenager, it was reassuring to know there was a place I could watch “Steel Against the Sky” (WB, 1941), even if it was at 4:45 a.m. in the morning and interrupted by commercials. It doesn’t exactly live up to that title, either, but it does show up from time to time on TCM.

 

 

Vera Hruba Ralston and other wonders of “Republic Rediscovered” at MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art’s wonderful “Republic Rediscovered” series of restorations co-curated by Martin Scorsese has been an opportunity to acquaint myself not only with films I’ve never seen but performers I’ve only been vaguely aware of.

Vera Hruba Ralston, the queen of the Republic lot, is probably best known as one of John Wayne’s many leading ladies, but on Saturday I caught her in a couple of bonkers ’40s vehicles that were cooked up for her. A Czech ice skater, Vera Hruba was signed as Republic’s answer to Sonia Henie, but then she married studio honcho Herbert Yates and was rechristened with a new last time reportedly taken from a cereal box and turned into a dramatic star.

Former Warner star George Brent gets top billing in “Angel on the Amazon” (1948, repeated Feb. 7), but the byzantine story is built around Ralston, a mysterious woman he meets in the jungle when she rescues him — and the other occupants of the plane he crashed in the jungle during a storm — from headhunters.

The smitten Brent and his chic doctor friend (a quite bemused Constance Bennett) encounter Ralston again in Rio de Janiero (courtesy of stock footage lifted from “Flying Down to Rio,” which also turns up in Republic’s “Brazil,” available on Blu-Ray). Despite the aging Brent’s best romantic efforts, Ralston remains skittish, especially after she glimpses a man from her past (Fortunio Buonanova), who fills Brent in with a tragic flashback after she flees the country.

The film’s third act takes place in Pasadena, where Brian Aherne (in old-age makeup), who Brent believes is Ralston’s father, narrates an even more ridiculous flashback featuring Ralston in a dual role. Not that anyone who had glimpse at the film’s ads or posters wouldn’t know she was “cursed with eternal life.”

Even Garbo would have a hard time pulling off this risible premise, and Ralston was no Garbo, even though Hungarian emigre director John Auer, a Republic workhorse, keeps her dialogue — delivered in a sometimes inscrutable accent — to an absolute minimum and just lets the audience drink in her beauty.

Poverty Row stylist Auer also helmed the equally entertaining, if utterly preposterous, “The Flame” (1947, Feb. 7) which casts Ralston (some of whose copious dialogue appears to be dubbed) as a French nurse who assists her American boyfriend (John Carroll, a former Clark Gable standby at MGM who generally rode the ranges for Republic) in a torturous scheme to inherit his half-brother’s millions.

Ralston works as a nurse to the half-brother (erstwhile Universal leading man Robert Paige), who is dying of an unspecified disease and seduces him into what’s supposed to be a very short marriage. But then of course she falls in love with her new organ-playing husband. Further complications are provided by a blackmailer (Broderick Crawford, who’s a hoot) mooning over his nightclub singer girlfriend (Constance Dowling) who takes a shine to Carroll.

The cast also includes Blanche Yurka as Paige’s aunt, who is justifiaby suspicious of Ralston’s motives, and Henry Travers as his doctor uncle, on hand to try to sell the improbably happy ending to audiences. “The Flame” also benefits from some nifty second-unit footage shot in New York City, where Carroll’s character lives on Central Park South.

MoMA offers two more glimpses of Ralston at the beginning and the end of her career. Repeating on Feb. 7 is Republic house director Joe Kane’s “Accused of Murder” (1956), released three years before the studio’s demise. Ralston plays the title character, a nightclub chanteuse that police detective David Brian tries to clear of killing her admirer, shady lawyer Sidney Blackmer. Filmed in an especially lurid version of Republic’s Trucolor and their widescreen process Naturama, the excellent cast includes a scene-stealing Dolores Gray as a key witness, Warren Stevens as a vicious mob hitman, a clean-shaven Lee Van Cleef as Brian’s junior partner and Elisha Cook Jr. as a weaselly informer. George Sherman’s “Storm Over Lisbon” (1944), described by MoMA as Republic’s budget version of “Casablanca” features Ralston in her dramatic acting debut opposite Richard Arlen and Erich von Stroheim. It’s showing on Feb. 9 and 14th.

I was even less familiar with the work of William Elliott, as he was known during a Republic interregnum between a pair of stints for Monogram/Allied Artists where he billed as “Wild Bill.” (He used “William” again for a handful of AA police thrillers at the end of his career). During the ’30s, as Gordon Elliott, he appeared in dozens of often unbilled bit parts mostly at Warner Bros.,  briefly dancing with another man as a winking Al Jolson quipped “Boys Will Be boys” in “Wonder Bar” (1934).

Elliott was past 40 when he made western expert R.G. Springsteen’s delightful “Hellfire” (1949), acting with a lack of artifice reminiscent of Gary Cooper as a soft-spoken but tough gambler who decides to build a church as a tribute to the preacher who dies taking a bullet meant to Elliott.

His faith is tested when he crosses paths with sexy outlaw Doll Brown (noir icon Marie Windsor, who’s excellent), whose real name is Mary Carson and is searching for her younger sister.  Doll has a price on her head for her husband’s murder and she is being hunted for the bounty by the husband’s brothers (Jim Davis, a year after “Winter Meeting” with Bette Davis, is the leader).

What makes the plot unusual is that she is also being sought by marshal Forrest Tucker, who is married to Doll/Mary’s sister and is also Elliott’s best friend. Only Elliot realizes that they are in-laws, but helps Doll when she assumes yet another identity, as saloon singer Julia Gaye, to fool Tucker. Things get really complicated when Tucker falls for his sister-in-law, who encourages his attentions to make Elliott jealous. Well, I said it was complicated. But it works.

“Hellfire” was photographed in Trucolor process, which looks fantastic in this restoration.  Windsor is ravishing whether she’s wearing leather or lace, and is more than up to the dramatic demands of the climax, when her late husband’s brothers storm the jail where she’s being held. Elliott handles action and dialogue scenes with such seemingly effortless aplomb that you wonder how he would have fared as a star at the majors studios. “Hellfire” is being repeated on Feb. 6 and Feb. 13 and offers elements of interest even for non-western diehards.

I also very much liked my first viewings of a couple of Republic’s family films: Allan Dwan’s religion-suffused “Driftwood” (1947, repeated Feb. 8), with an extraordinary performance by Natalie Wood as a six-year-old orphan experiencing civilization, including a spotted fever epidemic, for the first time; and  Kane’s “Trigger Jr.” (1950, repeated on Feb. 10), an irresistible Roy Rogers vehicle in gleaming Trucolor that packs a solid plot, three songs and several circus acts into just 68 minutes.

Also highly recommended is the only high-profile film in the series, another family film which I’d somehow never gotten around to seeing. Lewis Milestone’s sublime “The Red Pony” (1949, repeating Feb. 12),  is an example of Republic’s post-war ambitions to lure the carriage trade as the majors loosened their grip on theaters in the wake of a court order. It has Robert Mitchum, Myrna Loy, genuine three-strip Technicolor, a script by John Steinbeck, music by Aaron Copland and one of the most frightening climaxes I’ve ever seen in a movie.

The first screening of “Trigger Jr.” was accompanied by an hour’s worth of clips from beautifully restored Republic features and serials, some quite obscure indeed (like “Rosie the Riveter”). It was introduced by Andrea Kalas, archive director at Paramount Pictures, present owner of the Republic library, whose team is to be highly commended for the labors on hundreds of them. The splendid series continues through Feb. 15, then resumes again in August.

Revival circuit: ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (1932) and ‘That Brennan Girl’ (1946) at MoMA

I caught a couple of great new restorations at the Museum of Modern Art on Friday night. “Sherlock Holmes” (1932) was the delightful final screening of “To Save and Project,” MoMA’s annual festival of international film restorations. “That Brennan Girl” was the opening salvo in “Republic Rediscovered,” a series of 30 new restorations resulting from a fruitful collaboration between Paramount Pictures, owner of the Republic Pictures library, and Martin Scorsese’s “Film Foundation.”

I saw at least part of William K. Howard’s “Sherlock Holmes” around 45 years ago on WFSB’s “Cinema Club 3,” but didn’t remember much because the series (including some early Fox talkies that were newly arrived to TV) was broadcast at 11:30 on Sunday nights and I had to be at my desk at the Hartford Times by 7 am on Monday.

Ernest Torrence pretty much steals “Sherlock Holmes” (1932) from Clive Brook.

“Sherlock Holmes” is a whole lot of fun and, and — like Howard’s superb “Transatlantic” (1931) that kicked off this year’s “Save and Project” series — has a visual vitality and narrative sweep that makes it far easier to savor than many stage-bound early talkies.

The wit of Clive Brook’s Sherlock — he had actually played the role twice in two even earlier talkies, including a cameo in “Paramount on Parade” — is drier than Basil Rathbone’s definitive detective, but still much more lively than John Barrymore’s 1922 silent rendition. (Especially when Brook dons a particularly amusing disguise to confront Moriarity).

Both those films are credited as based on William Gillette’s stage play of the same name (as is Rathbone’s 1939 THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES) though they vary quite considerably in their particulars from the 1916 film version starring Gillette himself.

Brook’s edition benefits tremendously from the terrific Moriarity of Ernest Torrence, a towering Scottish-born villain in silents who would make just two more films before his death at the age of 54 the following year. In the striking opening sequence, Moriarity is sentenced to hang for murder, prompting Holmes to retire and set a wedding date with his fiancee (Miriam Jordan).

Because this film brings its Victorian Era hero into the 1930s, when Moriarity inevitably escapes he recruits a band of international criminals (including American gangster Stanley Fields) to wage an amusing Chicago-style mob war in London as part of his plot to eliminate Holmes and his arch-rival at Scotland Yard (Alan Mowbray, playing it mostly straight).

Other deviations that the estate of the prominently credited, recently-deceased Alexander Conan Doyle apparently permitted screenwriter Betram Millhauser (who later worked on five films in Universal’s Holmes series) to make included providing Sherlock a mildly annoying young Canadian ward named Billy and largely sidelining Dr. Watson (played splendidly if briefly by Reginald Owen, who would graduate to Holmes in 1933’s Poverty Row version of “A Study in Scarlet”).

Brook’s pistol-packing Sherlock may not be strictly according to Doyle, but this 69-minute adventure, which has been out of circulation for years, builds to a rousing (if wildly improbable) climax. MoMA has no repeats scheduled, but many of their restorations have turned up at the TCM Classic Film Festival (which has not yet announced its full schedule for this year). Fox is listed as collaborating with MoMA on this restoration, so perhaps they still retain (or will be wiling to negotiate) the rights necessary to put this classic out on video in this gorgeous new video transfer taken from a pristine 35mm nitrate print.

MoMA’s busy Dave Kehr, who curated “Save and Project,” also wrangled the Republic series and introduced Andrea Kalas, head of Paramount’s archives, who presented “That Brennan Girl.” It certainly lived up to MoMA’s promises about this “unaccountably overlooked” film, the final work of the underrated director Alfred Santell (whose masterful but sadly orphaned “Winterset” [RKO, 1936] could also use restoration).

For the first two-thirds at least, this story by former star reporter Adela Rogers St. John (a regular guest on “The Merv Griffin Show” as an old lady in the ’70s) goes against the Hollywood grain, daring the audience to sympathize with the character played by Paramount ingenue Mona Freeman —  a young San Francisco woman who picks up lots of bad habits from her hard-bitten divorcee mom (British actress June Duprez, the beautiful female lead of Korda’s “Thief of Bagdad,” who was only eight years older than Freeman).

A fleeting wartime romance leaves Freeman a widowed mother who can’t quite give up her love of nightlife, especially after the older man (James Dunn in one of his final screen appearances, though this Oscar winner continued to work regularly on TV up until his death in 1967) who befriends her is sent off to prison.

Before a more conventionally redemptive climax that may have been dictated by the studio, “That Brennan Girl” tackles its frequently sordid milieu with more honesty than you’d see in most Hollywood films of this era. Extensive location shooting adds to the verisimilitude, and the evocative score is by George Antheil (best known these days as the collaborator with Hedy Lamarr on the frequency-hopping technology that cellphones use). It’s very much worthy of reevaluation, and if you’re in the New York City area, MoMA will be offering repeats on Feb. 9 and Feb. 15, both at 5 p.m.

Republic reissued “That Brennan Girl” in 1951 in a re-edited version called “Tough Girl” and it ran frequently on TV (it’s unclear in which version or versions) between 1955 and around 1970. (“Suds up to here” was Howard Thompson’s entire capsule review in the New York Times, which seems wildly unfair). “That Brennan Girl” has circulated on the public-domain market since the ’70s, but hopefully Olive Films will offer it among its ongoing series of Republic restorations on DVD and Blu-ray.

The first part of the tantalizing, 30-film “Republic Rediscovered” (I’m unfamiliar with many of the tiles, though I have run across listings for many of them in my ongoing movies on TV project) runs through Feb. 15 and continues from Aug. 9 to 23.

Scorsese himself will be introducing John Auer’s “The City That Never Sleeps” tomorrow (Feb. 3) at 7 p.m. The full schedule is here. [http://press.moma.org/wp-content/files_mf/republicrediscovered_screeningschedule82.pdf]. And if that’s not sufficiently tempting, get a load of this mouth-watering trailer:

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the label of cinephile, but this sure looks like the cinephile event of the year to me.

From 1994: How VCRs changed my life

It’s 40 years since the first commercially viable VCR — RCA’s Selectavision, which caught on the with mass market in a way that Sony’s Betamax never did — went on sale. I bought RCA’s very first VCR in 1977, and wrote this remembrance in 1994, when the VHS format was still going strong. I had retired my original $1,000 machine (used so often that the heads were replaced three times) by this point, and finally tossed it in the trash a couple of years later. Here it is, as originally published in February 1994:

I was the first on my block to buy a VCR.

The year was 1977, and RCA had introduced what, to a lot of us, was
the first practical videocassette recorder.

Actually, back in those days practically everyone called them
Betamaxes, the way people call tissues Kleenexes. Sears had introduced a short-lived home video system called Cartrivision in 1972, but it was
Sony that created a sensation with the heavily advertised Betamax three
years later. Early models were built into consoles with 25-inch TV sets,
sold for upward of $3,000 — and could only record only 20 minutes at a time. Even when Sony upped that to an hour and introduced models that
could be hooked to existing TV sets, there were very few takers.

Then RCA entered the picture. It didn’t even make the machines
(Matsushita, which did, soon put out nearly identical ones with
Panasonic nameplates), and its VCRs provided picture quality that was,
truth be told, slightly inferior to that of the Betamax. But the big
enticement of the Video Home System — VHS, which went on to drive the
Beta system into virtual extinction — was its extending running time.
RCA’s first models could record up to 4 hours and 20 minutes at a pop,
enough for two to three movies.

And make no mistake about it, it was movies that fueled the VCR
revolution.

Contrary to marketers’ expectations, most people did not race out
and buy VCRs to tape their favorite soap operas or, say, “M*A*S*H” for
watching at a more convenient time.

They bought them to watch movies.

Take me. I gladly forked over $1,200 (list price) for the last
available machine at the Friendly Frost appliance store in Garden State
Plaza — three other places I called had instantly sold out that weekend
when RCA’s first model went on sale. It was an imposing chrome and
faux-wood-grain device with a manually operated channel changer and an
analog counter. It must have weighed 50 pounds. To record something, you
had to push down on piano-style keys. If you set the timer for the
middle of the night (which I often did), chances were you’d be awakened
by a loud click when it went on.

Though videotape was both expensive — about $20 a pop — and scarce
in those days, I quickly amassed a library. I had 50 movies on tape
within a month, 100 in 90 days. I lost count after 300. I was hardly
alone; a national videotape shortage occurred when CBS broadcast “Gone
With the Wind” for a second time in 1978.

It didn’t hurt that there was an awful lot of stuff out there to
tape, thanks to the burgeoning growth of cable television. Home Box
Office and Showtime quickly spun off sister services offering all-movie
diets: Cinemax and The Movie Channel. In the late Seventies, my cable
system not only offered round-the-clock movies from Ted Turner’s WTBS
superstation, but additional movies beamed in from Philadelphia, Boston,
and Worcester, Mass. Thanks to the miracle of microwave transmission, it
also beamed in a PBS affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., that showed
something like 60 movies a week. Within a three-year period, I wore out
two sets of recording heads on my VCR.

It wasn’t as if you could go out and buy “Gone With the Wind” — or
“Casablanca,” or almost anything else in the early years. Except for
20th Century Fox, which licensed 50 titles to an obscure Michigan outfit
called Magnetic Video in 1977, Hollywood wasn’t interested in selling
movies to the consumer, to say the least.

The idea of individuals’ owning copies of movies violated a concept
that went back to the beginning of the film industry. Even theaters only
rented them. But thanks to VCRs, people not only owned copies of movies,
they could acquire them without paying for them!

This idea was so threatening that the Walt Disney Co. and MCA
(parent company of Universal Studios) went to court against Sony,
maintaining that taping their movies — even for personal use —
constituted copyright infringement and theft.

U.S. District Judge Warren J. Ferguson thought otherwise.

In a decision with profound ramifications, he ruled in 1979 that
home taping was “a fair use of copyrighted works.”

Hollywood saw the handwriting on the wall. Rather than appeal, it
decided to join the revolution. All of the studios, including Disney and
Universal, set up video divisions.

I remember walking into a video store for the first time. It was
the old Video Shack on Route 4 in Paramus. There were so few titles
available that they were kept under glass. Except for the X-rated ones
in the back.

That quickly began to change. For one thing, nobody had foreseen
that a whole new industry would spring up around the rental of movies on
tape. After all, few people were going to run out and buy new movies,
which were going for $80 to $100 apiece in those days. Before long, you
could rent movies at the supermarket, or at the dry cleaner’s.

Theater owners were nervous. They saw home video as a competitor
that would keep their customers at home. They threatened to boycott when
Fox (which had bought Magnetic Video and renamed it Fox Video) decided
to release “9 to 5” within 90 days of concluding its theatrical
release. But just three years later, there was hardly a peep when
Paramount decided to issue “Flashdance” while the picture was still
playing in theaters.

What had happened in the interim was this: Rather than reducing
theatrical audiences, home video had actually whetted people’s appetites
for moviegoing. Theatrical admissions rose steadily throughout the
1980s. People who hadn’t been the movies in years liked what they saw on
tape or on cable TV and decided to check out what was in the theaters.
It didn’t hurt that the video market had fueled a worldwide film
production boom — in the mid-1980s, it was practically impossible to
lose money making a modestly budgeted movie — so there were a lot more
movies to choose from in theaters than there were in the late Seventies,
when even a dud might linger for a month or two.

I was a movie critic from 1981 to 1989, and from talking with my
readers, it was obvious they were becoming more interested in and more
sophisticated about movies. It was in this period that newspapers and
broadcasters started reporting box-office grosses as if they were sports
scores. Previously, nobody much cared outside of the business. And
thanks to the voracious appetites of cable TV and video for “software,”
movies that hadn’t seen the light of a cathode ray tube for decades —
silents, early talkies — were regularly on public display.

What video did was restore moviegoing as an American habit, in a way
it hadn’t been since the early 1950s. Once TV started force-feeding
movies to people in chopped up, adulterated form, interest waned. But
video enabled people to see what they wanted, when they wanted. Not
everybody thought this was great — I remember a girlfriend’s lament that
“The Wizard of Oz” was no longer an event when you could watch it on
demand (twice in a row, if you liked) instead of anticipating its annual
showings for 12 months. But a whole lot of us thought it was nifty.

James Stewart, 1957: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ seems to please people more on the small screen

“It’s a Wonderful Life” on a vintage TV set in Seneca Falls, New York, which claims to have inspired the Frank Capra classic.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been researching the long and strange history of motion pictures on television before 1980, so I was particularly pleased to run across a piece that ran in the New York Times Magazine on December 8, 1957. This was a year after the major Hollywood studios (save Paramount) began releasing their films to television. Thomas M. Pryor, the paper’s Hollywood correspondent, asked the likes of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Shirley Temple, Jeanette MacDonald, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck and Van Heflin what it was like to see their old films on TV. I was most intrigued by the quotes from James Stewart, whose “Come Live With Me’’ with Hedy Lamarr happened to be the second film shown on WCBS’ “The Late Show’’ on Sunday December 2, 1956. Instead, he discussed a pair of independent films that hit the tube before the late 1956 deluge — one way before — which he made immediately before and after his lengthy and distinguished World War II service in the Army Air Corps.

The first is by far the more obscure. Just before his enlistment, MGM loaned their newly-minted Oscar winner (for “The Philadelphia Story”) to independent producer James Roosevelt (the president’s son) for “Pot O’Gold’’ (1941), an undistinguished musical based on bandleader Horace Heidt’s radio show, in which Stewart plays a musician named Jimmy opposite Paulette Goddard, on loan from Paramount. Released theatrically by United Artists, it was reissued by Astor Pictures as “Jimmy Steps Out’’ and had its first documented New York City TV showing under that title on Sunday June 20, 1948 — reportedly the first movie ever shown on WPIX, which had launched a few days earlier. It reverted to its original title for a showing later that year on WABC. Stewart apparently caught it during what he describes as his very first glimpse of TV, when it turned up on the “CBS Film Theatre of the Air’’ on Saturday February 25, 1950 (he was possibly in town promoting MGM’s “Malaya,’’ which had opened three days earlier at the Capitol).

“James Stewart acknowledges that TV has brought out a couple of ghosts he would just as soon forget,’’ Pryor wrote in The Times. “He first saw television in a New York hotel room in 1950. Having tuned in a ‘jumble of noise and confused action,’ he was happily thinking ‘if this is television, Hollywood has nothing to worry about, until suddenly I recognized myself on the screen. It took me some time to figure out it was ‘Pot O’Gold,’ a picture that I had done before going into the Army and had never seen.’’

The film Stewart mentions more approvingly in the interview is “It’s a Wonderful Life’’ (1946) which had its NY TV premiere on Saturday April 7, 1956 on WCBS’ “The Late Show.” It was the big draw in the “Seventh Anniversary” package of ten films released to TV by M & A Alexander, which was soon absorbed by National Television Associates. It drew the second-highest rating of “Late Show” features shown in the first half of 1956 (the debut of “Three For Bedroom C,” a forgotten 1952 “NaturalColor” oddity starring Gloria Swanson that was apparently shown in black-and-white did slightly better).  “Wonderful Life” had been repeated in New York at least four times (including showings on “The Late Late Show’’ and “The Early Show’’) by the time the piece appeared, with another scheduled for Christmas Night 1957 on “The Late Show.’’

Stewart continues in The Times piece: “But it’s not all bad. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ which I made with Frank Capra after we both got out of the army, has been on television many times. I’ve seen it and I think is very well adapted to TV. I’ve had more comment and favorable reaction to this picture on television ten years after it was made than when it was first shown in theaters. It seems to please audiences more on a little screen.’’

“It’s a Wonderful Life’’ of course was a box-office disappointment (by dint of Frank Capra going way over budget) that achieved its place in the public consciousness on television. It really picked up momentum after NTA failed to renew its copyright and it fell into the public domain, with wall-to-wall, royalty-free TV showings on multiple cable networks and PBS outlets in the 1980s and 1990s and countless video releases, many sourced from terrible materials. NTA eventually policed its exclusive ownership through underlying copyrights to the story and music, paving the way for lucrative annual showings on NBC — quite a trick for black-and-white pre-’48. Those showings are now licensed by NTA’s corporate successor Paramount Pictures, which had sold the picture to M. & A. Alexander in the first place after acquiring Liberty Pictures, the outfit that co-produced “It’s a Wonderful Life’’ with distributor RKO.

“Pot O’Gold,’’ no masterpiece, remains mired in public domain hell, doomed to haunt YouTube and DVD bargain bins in sketchy fourth-generation transfers apparently derived from old TV prints. By the way, it wasn’t even the first Stewart film to hit television. That honor appears to belong to a much better film — David O. Selznick’s production of “Made for Each Other’’ (1939) co-starring Carole Lombard, which had its first documented showing on WNBT (now WNBC) on September 17, 1945. Like an astonishingly huge percentage of films that showed on early TV, it’s also drifted into the public domain. One is another Capra, “Meet John Doe.” But that’s a story for another day.

 

Trump, Davies and ‘Mission to Moscow’

 

Joseph E. Davies (Walter Huston) exhorts American to support Russia at a Madison Square Garden Rally in MISSION TO MOSCOW (1943)

You can’t make this stuff up. The Trump Organization uses (and his trademarked) a coat of arms that was granted by British authorities in 1939 to former American Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies, The New York Times reports today.

“There is one historical parallel between the Mr. Trump and Mr. Davies,” writes The Times’ Danny Hakim, who notes that Trump’s lavish Mar-a-Lago resort was built by Davies’ then-wife, Marjorie Merriwether Post. “Both men were controversially pro-Russian. Mr. Davies, who played an important role as a go-between for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Soviets, has been criticized for being taken in by Stalin’s propaganda machine.”

My longtime readers know that’s something of an understatement. Three-quarters of a century before Trump cozied up to Vladimir Putin, Roosevelt embraced another Soviet dictator — and Hollywood was more than happy to help out by selling Joseph Stalin to a skeptical American public. The most remarkable product of Washington and Tinseltown’s (temporary) celebration of the Soviet Union and its genocidal leader is “Mission to Moscow.” This jaw-dropping, lavish production (reportedly costing $2 million) is essentially a two-hour compendium of what Trump spokeswoman Kellyann Conway famously dubbed “alternative facts’’ about Stalin. With an investigation into whether Putin helped Trump win the presidency picking up steam, to call “Mission to Moscow’’ timely may be an understatement.
Of course, World War II was raging and there were sound strategic reasons for Roosevelt’s embrace of Stalin. Not a few military historians believe that tying up a substantial portion of Hitler’s armies on the Soviet front provided the margin of victory for allied forces over an over-extended Germany in Europe. And there was a legitimate fear that Stalin could forge another truce with Hitler, even if Hitler had broached an earlier non-aggression pact between the nations, forcing the USSR into World War II.

     Screenwriter Howard Koch, who ended up blacklisted because of his reluctant participation, writes in his memoirs that the brothers Jack and Harry Warner both told him that Roosevelt personally asked them to film “Mission to Moscow.’’ It had been a best-selling memoir by Davies, who was FDR’s ambassador in the pre-war period and a Soviet apologist par excellence. Testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee after Roosevelt’s death, Jack Warner repeated this claim but later recanted. Some historians believe the approach may have actually made through Roosevelt administration’s propaganda arm, the Office of War Information. But there is documentation that even during a war, the president found the time to meet with his longtime pal Davies on at least three occasions to be briefed on the film’s progress.
Directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca’’’) with his usual panache and containing copious quantities of Soviet-provided archival footage expertly assembled by future Clint Eastwood directorial mentor Don Siegel, “Mission to Moscow’’ presents a hugely flattering portrait of a prosperous and happy Russia that’s at odds with most accounts by foreign visitors of the era. But the film more insidiously steamrollers history, providing tortured rationalizations for the non-aggression pact (to buy the USSR more time to build up its defenses against Hitler) and the USSR’s invasion of Finland (to protect it from the Nazis).

Walter Huston and Ann Harding as Joe Davies and Marjorie Post in “Mission to Moscow.”
The real Marjorie Post and husband Joseph E. Davies in Moscow, 1938. They brought back a boatload of Russian art.

Davies — who was given unprecedented control over the film — wasn’t satisfied with these lies. At his insistence, the film makes claims that do not appear in his memoirs, most notably excusing the purge trials of Stalin’s political enemies. In the film’s highly fictional retelling, they were all secretly spying on behalf of Germany and Japan! Davies, played in the film by Oscar winner Walter Huston (who had portrayed Abraham Lincoln under D.W. Griffith’s direction) declares that based on his experience as a trial lawyer, the defendants’ “confessions” are credible. In another scene with chilling contemporary relevance, Davies defends the Soviets when a surveillance device is found inside the U.S. embassy. (“We have no secrets’’).

Davies (Walter Huston) cozies up to Stalin (Manart Kippen).

“Mission to Moscow” producer Robert Buckner (who had willfully distorted American history for entertainment purposes in the Errol Flynn vehicle “Santa Fe Trail’’) later later labeled the film (which co-starred Ann Harding as his wife, referred to only as Marjorie) “an expedient lie for political purposes, glossily covering up important facts with full or partial knowledge of their false presentation.’’
Small wonder that “Mission to Moscow” was the first Hollywood film to get an official showing in the Kremlin — Davies was in attendance — and that Stalin even reopened the Soviet market to U.S. movies for the first time in decades, at least until the Cold War began a couple of years later.

The real Joe Davies with Stalin at the Moscow premiere in 1943.

“Three days after viewing it, the Siren still feels as though somebody rewired her brain,’’ wrote my friend Farran Smith Nehme (aka the Self-Styled Siren) after her first viewing on TCM, in 2009. We ultimately programmed “Shadows of Russia,’’ an entire series of films built around “Mission to Moscow,’’ that aired on the network in 2010. (It’s available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection).
I’ve introduced screenings of “Mission to Moscow’’ at both the Museum of the Moving Image and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (the second with a panel discussion). On both occasions, there were audible gasps from the audience during a scene where Davies meets briefly with a warm and cuddly Stalin (character actor Manart Kippen, billed only on some posters), who the film consistently portrays as a progressive whose goals are compatible with American democracy. This is when the ambassador tells the dictator, “Mr. Stalin, I believe history will record you as a great builder for the benefit of mankind.’’

The “Mission to Moscow” press book includes this comic strip to be distributed to local newspapers.

Of course, in the real world, exactly the opposite is true. Because of its talkiness and heavy-handed propaganda, “Mission to Moscow’’ has infrequently been seen since its theatrical release in the spring of 1943, a fascinating historical curiosity. But thanks to the new administration in Washington, it’s acquired a totally unexpected timeliness, even if it seems unlikely that present-day Hollywood will indulge President Trump’s mysterious desire to burnish Putin’s image. Then again, few would have predicted a Russia-loving Republican president could be elected a year ago.

Magazine ad for “Mission to Moscow,” which apparently lost money at the box office.

I’ve written two much longer pieces on the fascinating history of “Mission to Moscow,’’ one for the now-inactive Moving Image Source  and another for the New York Post. “Mission to Moscow’’ was backed by an extensive promotional campaign, including this remarkable 30-page press book that my colleague Gregory Miller posted to Tumblr on my behalf a few years ago.
The New York Times reports that British authorities wouldn’t allow Trump’s properties in Scotland to use the Davies coat-of-arms that is displayed at his U.S. courses (with the word “Integratas” — Latin for “integrity” — replaced by Trump). And that Davies’ descendants contemplated suing the future president few years ago but were dissuaded by his grandson, former U.S. Senator Joseph D. Tydings.
“The way he operates, you don’t sue Trump, because you’ll be in court for years and years and years.” Grandpa Joe Davies, Tydings told The Times, “would be rolling over in his grave to think he was using his crest.”

Tay Garnett’s ‘Destination Unknown’ (1933) is a major rediscovery at MoMA

Pat O’Brien and Betty Compson adrift in “Destination Unknown”

Some of director Tay Garnett’s best film take place at sea — “One Way Passage,’’ “China Seas,’’ and “Trade Winds.’’ But that didn’t prepare me for the intoxicatingly exotic strangeness of “Destination Unknown’’ (1930), which had its first showing in decades in a crisp new print derived from the original nitrate camera negative.

The extremely vividly evoked milieu is a whiskey-smuggling boat that’s been stranded somewhere in the Pacific after a ferocious storm. The crew is starting to go mad from lack of drinking water — and boy, Garnett and his cast will make you wish you brought along a battle of Poland Spring yourself. The scuzzy bootlegger (Pat O’Brien, who was a much darker and more interesting actor in his pre-Warner period) who hired the ship and his henchman (Russell Hopton) are guarding the last barrel of water with guns while taking swigs in front of the crew.

The vessel’s captain and first mate were swept overboard during the storm, so the crew is being led by a burly Swedish boatswain (Alan Hale) who discovers a cache of water in the galley. He fills empty whiskey bottles with the water and gives them to the crew — with orders to pretend they’re drinking whiskey. The crew is played by a gallery of great character actors like Willard Robertson and Charles Middleton, as well as juvenile lead Tom Brown as newcomer who’s been grievously wounded by trigger-happy Hopton.

Things quickly get seriously worse. The precious water supply is squandered, and the ship starts sinking. As everyone starts helping themselves to the cargo to drink themselves into oblivion as the end is nigh, a mysterious stowaway (Ralph Bellamy in easily the most unusual role of his half-century career) emerges from behind a cross of light — and begins to make things right. Let’s just say his closest collollary in classic Hollywood films is played by Ian Hunter in “Strange Cargo.’’

The metaphors in Tom Buckingham’s highly original screenplay aren’t always subtle, but the uniformly excellent performances make it clear that this rough collection of men are thirsting for more than water. That would include Betty Compson, a former girlfriend of O’Brien’s who apparently has been smuggled aboard by one of his confederates. But her role is so underdeveloped that it almost seems like an afterthought.

A beatific Ralph Bellamy with Rollo Lloyd, playing a doctor whose disability is miraculously cured.

But these are very small complaint about the perfectly titled “Destination Unknown,’’ which Garnett steers to a memorable conclusion with consummate skill. Kudos to MoMA programmer Dave Kehr and his colleagues for rescuing this atmospheric treat from the sea of unseen films.

“Destination Unknown’’ was shown as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s second series of Universal Pictures rarities produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. If you’re in the New York area, I’d strongly recommend checking out MoMA’s repeat showing on Monday May 15 at 5 p.m. as this one has never been on TV, much less video.

And by all means, stick around (at 7 pm) for second program of unseen-for-decades Universal shorts picked out and introduced by Vitaphone Project founder Ron Hutchinson and featuring the likes of Robert Benchley, Ed Sullivan, Rose Marie and Henry Armetta. I haven’t seen these yet, but if they’re half as entertaining as the set shown last week you’re in for another very rare treat.