Sunday, December 18, 2016

March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934): Laurel and Hardy Meet Santa Claus (AND the Boogeyman!)

As a kid, I always looked forward to March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934), starring the classic comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.  I must admit, however, that I did so with excited trepidation. To put it bluntly, that flick creeped me out! Much like The Wizard of OzMarch of the Wooden Soldiers (originally released as Babes in Toyland), featured many surreal looking characters and situations that fascinated as well as terrified this five year-old.

Based on a Victor Herbert operetta from 1903, the film was a fantasy extravaganza without the use of the yet to be invented CGI.  Set entirely in Toyland, bizarre almost grotesque looking costumes adorned inhabitants such as the Cat and the Fiddle, the Three Little Pigs and even a Mickey Mouse (almost) look-alike.  THEN there were the Boogeymen, Sasquatch wannabes who hooted and hollered while terrorizing Toyland.  Santa Clause even makes an appearance though he looks as if he made a stop at the North Pole Bar and Grill on his way in (make it a double Blitzen).  But of all these weird and wonderful eccentrics two ‘humans’ were creepiest of all and perhaps that’s because they were real people.  First, Silas Barnaby, the meanest man in Toyland, was a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and the hated black clad villain in silent film melodramas.  You know, the one who tied the virginal damsel in distress to the railroad?  Henry Brandon, billed as his birth name Kleinbach here, would again play this Barnaby-like character in an Our Gang episode a few years down the road. Second, and perhaps most surprising was Mother Goose.  I don’t know, when she walked out with her gray finger waved, Goldie locked hair set underneath that tall prick-a-finger-you-die pointy black witches hat, heavy framed glasses sloped down on her nose and Salem witch trial collar wrapped ‘round her neck, I just didn’t get a good vibe.  On top of that, this was all heaped around a face that didn’t look a day over 25! Creepy…….

But these were mere window dressing for the deco grand guignol by producer Hal Roach.  The film was really a vehicle for Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, whose massive popularity was catapulted further still by the release of this film in Fall 1934.  As Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, L&H tumble and bumble in the most celebrated way while trying to help Widow Peep and her daughter Little Bo Peep battle the nasty Barnaby, who holds the mortgage on the shoe they all live in together (get it, the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe?). Bo Peep makes eyes at Tom-Tom, the Piper’s Son and he gets in on the action too.

Although Stan and Ollie were the stars of the film no holds barred, the other actors overplayed their parts to perfection.  I mean this was Toyland in the midst of the Depression.  Kids loved it and dragged parents in droves.  Charlotte Henry, who was cast as Bo Peep, had just played another literary ingenue as the title character in the previous year’s Alice in Wonderland at Paramount.  As the comely maiden, wearing a blond wig borrowed from Jethreen Bodine, she always reminded me very much of June Marlow, another Hal Roach player who immortalized Miss Crabtree in his Our Gang shorts.  And speaking of resembling someone else in Tinseltown, if you have the opportunity to check out the movie sometime, see if you don’t agree that as Tom-Tom, tenor Felix Knight (pictured above) could be the kid brother of Robert Taylor.

Seems kind of odd that physical comedy giants Laurel and Hardy would be plunked down in the middle of a Herbert operetta but for celluloid whimsy it works and Stan and Ollie aren’t required to sing anyway (although Oliver Hardy did get his show business start singing).  With the flood of television sets in the 1950s and '60s, March of the Wooden Soldiers, also like The Wizard of Oz, made annual appearances to generations of kiddies.  Colorized at the end of the 20th century, the original black and white version is better, lending an even eerier feel to an already tantalizing funfest.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Kate Hepburn: POISON?

In an issue of Classic Movies Digest, Volume One, just released on Amazon, I discuss the period in the career of the late, great Katharine Hepburn when she was labeled BOX OFFICE POISON.  It was a moniker that she shared with other Hollywood greats but would overcome.  Below I offer a short excerpt from the newly bundled CMD Volume One, Issues 1-5.  Read it, enjoy it and hopefully you will want to check out the whole book.

Katharine Hepburn:  Box-Office Poison?

Making her film debut in 1932 with the legendary John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement, Connecticut born and bred Katharine Hepburn was set on a path for screen stardom.  Within a year of her auspicious Hollywood entrĂ©e, she starred in the first of her four Academy Award winning roles (Morning Glory), as well as one of the most recognized and popular films of the decade (Little Women).  She was the darling of her home studio, RKO, and her continued success seemed inevitable.  Unlike her contemporaries, she refused to play the Tinsel Town game.  She abhorred interviews and rebuffed reporters (when asked by one newsperson if she and then husband Ludlow Ogden Smith had any children, her unorthodox reply was:  “Two white and three colored”).  Her wearing of pants and masculine attire and her disdain for makeup was seen as too independent for public taste and she was tagged by some with the moniker “Katharine of Arrogance.”  Hepburn went back to the stage on her native East coast, for the not very well received The Lake.  When she returned to Hollywood, RKO cast her in Alice Adams (1935) for which she received yet another Oscar nomination, but the accolades were short lived.
In 1936, Hepburn made Sylvia Scarlett with Cary Grant and Brian Aherne, in which the non-stereotypical actress played a woman who is disguised as a young man.  The RKO oddity cost Kate a big chunk of her reputation and the studio a big chunk of change (The film lost a whopping $363,000 in Depression-era dollars).  Her period costume dramas, of the mid-‘30s, including Mary of Scotland, A Woman Rebels (both 1936) and Quality Street (1937), were flops as well, the latter two losing almost a quarter of a million dollars each at the box office.  The public was staying away from Hepburn pictures in droves.
Despite her rapidly slipping popularity, her agent, Leland Hayward, was able to negotiate a new contract with RKO and her first project under the new deal was a screen adaption of the Edna Ferber - George S. Kauffman Broadway hit, Stage Door.  The film enjoyed modest success and there seemed to be a ray of hope for Kate’s career.  Stage Door paired the haughty Hepburn with Ginger Rogers, who, commercially, was a much more popular star at the time and lucrative commodity for the studio.  As Hepburn’s status at RKO plummeted, Rogers’ simultaneous skyrocketed.  The movie’s director, Gregory La Cava, used the stars’ studio rivalry as an asset to the film, enhancing the on-screen cattiness to great advantage.  Still, the sparkling and intelligent comedy didn’t hit the mark that RKO execs had aimed for, bringing in only $81,000 in profits.
Desperate for a Hepburn hit and with fingers crossed, the studio cast her in a comedy, based on the humble financial success of Stage Door.  Again paired with Cary Grant, who had just made a comic breakthrough of his own with The Awful Truth, the actress starred in Bringing Up Baby, the story of a man, a woman and a leopard named Baby.  As inane as it sounded, that was the stuff of screwball comedies in the 1930s.  In retrospect, Bringing Up Baby is considered by some as one of the premiere classic comedies of its time, but in 1938 it was a box-office disaster, losing $365,000, and when RKO slated Hepburn’s next film to be the standard programmer Mother Carey’s Chickens, the actress saw the writing on the wall. Mother Carey’s Chickens was made but without Hepburn.  She bought out her contract for just over $200,000 and left the studio with which she had become synonymous.

Read the rest of the chapter and the others on the Golden Age of Hollywood, including The Bette Davis/ Miriam Hopkins Feud, Life of a Starlet: Lana Turner, movie reviews and behind the scenes stories and so much more in CLASSIC MOVIES DIGEST: Volume One, Issues 1-5!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Hooray for Hollywood!

CLASSIC MOVIE LOVER ALERT! I'm happy to announce that I've just released my Classic Movies Digest Volume 1 BUNDLE. It is Issues 1 through 5 of my CMD eMagazine bundled into ONE VOLUME at almost HALF the PRICE than if you purchased them separately!!

Only $4.99 compared to $8.99 bought individually. Check it out and take advantage of this AWESOME deal.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Backbone of a Classic Movie

Character actors from the classic movie age are some of the most beloved stars of the era. In my new book, The Name Below The Title, Volume 3: 20 MORE Classic Movie Character Actors From Hollywood's Golden Age, I celebrate the lives and contributions of even more fabulous personalities, some of my personal favorites, some whom are loved by a vast majority.

The tragedy of Fox player Carole Landis (pictured above), the unique life of Dame Margaret Rutherford, best-known for her sprightly Miss Marple in the 1960s, the suicide of Clara Blandick, who played Judy Garland's Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz, the struggle for stardom and extreme weight loss by Laird Cregar.  These and so many others are featured in The Name Below The Title, Volume 3.  Click on the links for Amazon and read the first couple of chapters for FREE in the Amazon preview!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

It's May!

And Redgrave and the whole Camelot gang want to celebrate!


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