Universal Pictures: 100 years of movies, 20 years of genre classics

14 Jul

Film Forum in Manhattan started a series yesterday (Friday, July 13) celebrating 100 years of Universal Pictures, beginning with a double bill of FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, both 1931. They’re running 72 films, 60 of which I’ve seen already, and the schedule includes many, if not most of the best films the studio is famous for. To a younger generation of budding movie buffs in the New York area, this will be a rare opportunity to see many genuine classics on the big screen. (It’s also a rare opportunity to see them at all, outside of Turner Classic Movies and the ones that are available on DVD.)

35 years ago, I had a similar opportunity. In 1977, the Museum of Modern Art ran a 65th anniversary retrospective of Universal Pictures, which offered a much more comprehensive program consisting of 325 films, extending from 1912 to a “to be announced” showing of a 1978 release. In looking over the MOMA program, I count 162 films that I’ve seen among its offerings, most in the 35 years since. The MOMA series, curated by Adrienne Mancia and Larry Kardish, was designed to showcase a wide representative sampling of the studio output and not just the “agreed-upon” classics. 53 films in the Film Forum program also ran at MOMA.

 

The Film Forum schedule got me to thinking about what Universal Pictures meant to me, first as a budding film buff in my youth and then over the years. When I first began paying serious attention to Hollywood film as a child, Universal represented something very different from the other studios. It wasn’t the edgiest of studios, nor did it seem to have the best talent of the era. It seemed to be aiming for the most mainstream appeal, something that just didn’t hold much interest for me. (Forgive me if, as an adolescent, I was a bigger fan of American International Pictures.)  I have kept a copy of an advertising supplement devoted to Universal City Studios that appeared in The New York Times on March 14, 1965. It was touting the 50th Anniversary of “Universal City Studios, A Division of MCA,” and listed the many entertainment attractions and other assets touted by Universal’s then-parent company, MCA. 

What struck me odd in looking at this now was the date of the 50th Anniversary. It was 47 years ago and not 50. I’m assuming the studio facility itself was opened in 1915 and that’s what was being celebrated in 1965 and not the actual birth of the company. Also, in the entire supplement, only two pages were devoted to theatrical motion pictures. The rest covered television, popular recordings (Decca Records), music publishing (Music Corporation of America), real estate, banking, and the then-new attraction of the Universal studio tour. The movie offerings consisted of the following:

FATHER GOOSE, STRANGE BEDFELLOWS, FLUFFY, MCHALE’S NAVY JOINS THE AIR FORCE:

A VERY SPECIAL FAVOR, THAT FUNNY FEELING, THE WAR LORD, THE NIGHT WALKER:

BUS RILEY’S BACK IN TOWN, THE TRUTH ABOUT SPRING, THE ART OF LOVE, MIRAGE:

SHENANDOAH, THE IPCRESS FILE:

14 films, only one of which I actually saw in a theater when it came out: FATHER GOOSE. Of the others I count seven that I caught up with on television years later. The others I still haven’t seen. I’m sure FLUFFY was perfectly wholesome family entertainment (Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide calls it “silly”), but, as much as I like Tony Randall and Shirley Jones, I’ve never felt compelled to check it out. Of the ones I later saw on TV, there were three I wish I’d seen when they came out: THE WAR LORD, SHENANDOAH and THE IPCRESS FILE. (And most of the films listed under “And Also Coming…” never came to pass, at least under those titles.) 

I remember Universal being more famous in the 1960s for its TV production. It pioneered the making of TV movies, some of which, like Don Siegel’s THE KILLERS (1964), got released in theaters first (it was considered too violent for TV). I remember FAME IS THE NAME OF THE GAME, based on the 1949 Alan Ladd movie, CHICAGO DEADLINE, and THE DOOMSDAY FLIGHT, written by Rod Serling, both from 1966, being the earliest TV movies I was aware of, but they were preceded by SEE HOW THEY RUN (1964) and Siegel’s THE HANGED MAN (1964), a remake of RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947), all Universal productions. (FAME IS THE NAME OF THE GAME inspired a subsquent 90-minute weekly TV series, “The Name of the Game,” whose directing staff would include a young Steven Spielberg.)  There was also a remake of Anthony Mann’s WINCHESTER ’73 (1967), with Tom Tryon in the James Stewart role and Dan Duryea reprising his role as Waco Johnny Dean, and Don Siegel’s modern western, STRANGER ON THE RUN (1967), starring Henry Fonda. Siegel’s THE KILLERS was a nominal remake of Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film noir of that title (based on Hemingway’s short story), but was actually quite an imaginative variation on it. Lee Marvin played one of the title killers and Ronald Reagan played a bad guy!

Here’s part of the TV page from that 1965 supplement:

Notice the entry for the “Special Two Hour Films Made for TV – in Color.”

Universal’s movies during this period were generally TV-friendly. In fact, many of them wound up on TV within a year of showing in theaters, usually on NBC, with which Universal had a close relationship. Other studios at the time were more likely to distribute offbeat, often controversial films reflecting the turbulence of the time, e.g. Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE (Columbia), Franklin Schaffner’s THE BEST MAN (United Artists), John Frankenheimer’s SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (Paramount), Sidney Lumet’s FAIL-SAFE (Columbia), Arthur Penn’s MICKEY ONE (Columbia), Mike Nichols’ WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF (Warner Bros.), Penn’s BONNIE AND CLYDE (Warner), etc. The edgiest films Universal made during this period were J. Lee Thompson’s CAPE FEAR, Robert Mulligan’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and George Englund’s THE UGLY AMERICAN.

Marlon Brando, Kukrit Pramoj in THE UGLY AMERICAN (1963)

More typical of the time for Universal were the Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies (e.g. SEND ME NO FLOWERS), the Tony Curtis comedy, 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE, and the Bobby Darin/Sandra Dee vehicle, THAT FUNNY FEELING.

The only Universal films I saw in theaters in the 1960s when they came out were: 

THE RAIDERS, a low-budget TV-style western featuring Robert Culp as Wild Bill Hickok;

CHARADE, one of Cary Grant’s last three films;

FATHER GOOSE, Cary Grant’s penultimate film;

Cary Grant in FATHER GOOSE (1964)

ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS, a historical adventure based on a popular Newbery Award-winning novel for young readers;

A MAN COULD GET KILLED, a spy spoof with James Garner, Sandra Dee and Melina Mercouri;

WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT FEELING GOOD?, a comedy with vaguely countercultural themes directed by George Seaton and starring Mary Tyler Moore and George Peppard;

COOGAN’S BLUFF, a police thriller starring Clint Eastwood and directed by Don Siegel, which was in fact tagged “Suggested for Mature Audiences,” and easily the edgiest of the Universal films I saw in theaters that decade. 

Meg Myles, Clint Eastwood in COOGAN’S BLUFF (1968)

(Of course, this would all change in the 1970s, when Universal expanded its horizons considerably and gave us a more diverse slate that included TAKING OFF, DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE, PLAY MISTY FOR ME, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ, SILENT RUNNING, FRENZY, ULZANA’S RAID, AMERICAN GRAFFITI, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, THE STING, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, and ANIMAL HOUSE, all of which I saw in theaters on their initial release.)

Earlier in the ’60s, though, there were four Universal films I saw as an eight-to-nine-year-old at a neighborhood theater that specialized in triple bills of older films: Anthony Mann’s BEND OF THE RIVER (1952); the Francis the Talking Mule entry, FRANCIS IN THE NAVY (1955), which, coincidentally, co-starred Clint Eastwood; the Boris Karloff horror film, THE BLACK CASTLE (1952), seen at a Halloween Horror Show; and Robert Aldrich’s THE LAST SUNSET(1961), which, like BEND OF THE RIVER was a tough western by an established auteur director. I would revisit both of these quite happily in a western series shown in Manhattan over a decade later when I was in college.

Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson in THE LAST SUNSET (1961)

Which leads up to the most salient fact about Universal during that period: all their best films were older ones being shown regularly on TV: the horror classics with Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man; Lon Chaney Jr.’s Inner Sanctum series; film noir like PHANTOM LADY, BLACK ANGEL, THE KILLERS, and CRISS CROSS; 1950s sci-fi films like IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN; Deanna Durbin musicals; Abbott and Costello comedies; four of W.C. Fields’ best comedies; Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials; Audie Murphy westerns; and the six Technicolor swashbuckling adventures starring Jon Hall and Maria Montez. Not to mention such other bonafide classics as Alfred Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR and SHADOW OF A DOUBT, Fritz Lang’s SCARLET STREET, Jules Dassin’s THE NAKED CITY, Anthony Mann’s WINCHESTER ’73, Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL and various Douglas Sirk films. Many of the films/film cycles found in the MOMA program and the current Film Forum schedule came out of this group.

Lon Chaney Jr. in WEIRD WOMAN (1944)

By the time I became aware of Universal in the 1960s, the only world-class filmmaker still making his home there was Alfred Hitchcock, who produced all of his last six films there (THE BIRDS to FAMILY PLOT). And, arguably, Don Siegel, who began his fruitful collaboration with Clint Eastwood at the studio, although they did their best film, DIRTY HARRY, at Warner Bros.

In any event, what remains for me one of the studio’s most significant achievements didn’t really become evident until after I finally got a color TV in 1978 and began staying up late for WOR-TV’s regular broadcasts of Universal product from the 1940s and ’50s. More than any other studio of Hollywood’s golden age, Universal specialized in making low-to-medium budget genre films, in a wide range of genres, mostly made completely in the confines of the studio. These included westerns, swashbucklers, horror, science fiction, musicals, gangster films, war movies, comedies, melodramas, and globe-trotting adventures. All were at the very least well-crafted and some, like INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, turned out to be masterpieces. Universal was also the first studio to use Technicolor regularly in its lower-budgeted genre films, a pioneering act of production that began with ARABIAN NIGHTS in 1942 and continued with a steady array of westerns and costume adventures through the middle of the 1950s. I especially liked discovering the swashbucklers that starred the likes of Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Piper Laurie, Jeff Chandler, Yvonne de Carlo, and Maureen O’Hara, with titles like THE DESERT HAWK, BUCCANEER’S GIRL, AGAINST ALL FLAGS, YANKEE BUCCANEER, THE GOLDEN BLADE, YANKEE PASHA, VEILS OF BAGDAD, FLAME OF ARABY, BENGAL BRIGADE, and the infamous trio that starred Tony Curtis—THE PRINCE WHO WAS A THIEF, SON OF ALI BABA, and THE BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH, one of which spawned the oft-repeated gag about Tony’s utterance of “Yonduh lies da castle of my fadduh,” a line I never heard in any of these films.

Rock Hudson, Piper Laurie in a stylized scene from THE GOLDEN BLADE (1953)

I was especially taken with YANKEE PASHA (1954), starring Jeff Chandler and Rhonda Fleming. This was a film where Universal tried to squeeze in every backlot from half-a-dozen different genres into one story. It starts out in a western town set doubling for Salem, Massachusetts, in the early 1800s (when it was already a bustling New England city and not a frontier town) where we meet frontiersman Jeff Chandler, decked out in buckskin, riding a mule and carrying a flintlock (hundreds of miles from the region where such a getup would have seemed appropriate). It moves to the sea where pirates take over a ship carrying Chandler’s fiancée (Fleming) and abduct her. They sell her to an Arabian sultan (Lee J. Cobb!) and Chandler, still decked out in buckskin, pursues the trail to this kingdom, looking for all the world like Davy Crockett meets Ali Baba, where we find an alternate universe making use of all the studio’s Arabian Nights sets and costumes. Mamie Van Doren pops up as a blond harem girl who’s jealous of the new redhead and gets into a catfight with Fleming. American marines show up to fight the Barbary Pirates in an action-packed finale. Only at Universal Pictures in the 1950s.

Jeff Chandler in YANKEE PASHA (1954)

Other TV viewings of Universal films yielded the following discoveries, most of them in color and all of which somehow passed under the radar of the programmers at MOMA and the Film Forum:

GYPSY WILDCAT (1944) – Jon Hall and Maria Montez among the gypsies in a middle-European kingdom with a screenplay co-written by James M. Cain!

CAN’T HELP SINGING (1944) – Deanna Durbin’s only Technicolor movie—a western musical about a wagon train to California.

SUDAN (1945) – Jon Hall and Maria Montez in Ancient Egypt. Provides the same entertainment value as the big-budget CLEOPATRA (1963), but made for a fraction of the catering bill on that film.

BLACK ANGEL (1946) – film noir with Dan Duryea, based on Cornell Woolrich.

THE EXILE (1947) – Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in a swashbuckler directed by Max Ophuls.

ROGUES’ REGIMENT (1948) – Dick Powell and Stephen McNally as mercenaries in the French Foreign Legion in postwar IndoChina.

CITY ACROSS THE RIVER (1949) – gritty urban drama about Brooklyn’s Amboy Dukes, with Tony Curtis as one of the gang in his first important role. Filmed on location.

COMANCHE TERRITORY (1950) – Jim Bowie in pre-Alamo Texas.

THE KID FROM TEXAS (1950) – Audie Murphy as Billy the Kid in one of the best films about the famous outlaw.

KANSAS RAIDERS (1950) – Audie Murphy as Jesse James when he was a teenager fighting for Quantrill. Tony Curtis as Kit Dalton.

Young Guns, Universal-style, L-R: Richard Long, Audie Murphy, Dewey Martin, James Best and Tony Curtis in KANSAS RAIDERS

TOMAHAWK (1951) – Van Heflin as famed explorer, guide and mountain man Jim Bridger.

DUEL AT SILVER CREEK (1952) – fast-paced Audie Murphy western directed by Don Siegel.

FLESH AND FURY (1952) – concise little melodrama with Tony Curtis as a deaf boxer helped by one woman (Mona Freeman) and exploited by another (Jan Sterling).

RED BALL EXPRESS (1952)  – white and black troops underwent integration on the battlefield to create the title unit to provide fuel for Patton’s tank offensive in WWII. Directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Jeff Chandler and Sidney Poitier.

CITY BENEATH THE SEA (1953) – exotic Caribbean adventure with Robert Ryan and Anthony Quinn as salvage divers going after sunken gold in Jamaica. Directed by Budd Boetticher.

COLUMN SOUTH (1953) – Civil War-themed cavalry western with Audie Murphy as a Union officer trying to prevent trouble out west with the Indians.

DESERT LEGION (1953) – Alan Ladd in the French Foreign Legion in Arabia with redhead Arlene Dahl in an array of dazzling costumes.

THE GREAT SIOUX UPRISING (1953) – Jeff Chandler stars in one of many Indian-themed westerns made by Universal in the 1950s.

WINGS OF THE HAWK (1953) – Van Heflin as an American miner caught up in the Mexican Revolution. Directed by Budd Boetticher.

TANGANYIKA (1954) – Van Heflin on safari in Africa.

SIX BRIDGES TO CROSS (1955) – Tony Curtis and the famous Brinks’ robbery.

SO THIS IS PARIS (1955) – sailors on leave in Paris in colorful musical featuring Gene Nelson, Tony Curtis and Gloria DeHaven.

FOXFIRE (1955) –  marital drama about life among modern Native Americans in the Southwest, with Jeff Chandler, Jane Russell and Dan Duryea.

FEMALE ON THE BEACH (1955) – Joan Crawford and a younger man (Jeff Chandler) in a beach house. ’Nuff said.

BACKLASH (1956) – tough John Sturges western with Richard Widmark.

CONGO CROSSING (1956) – expatriate fugitives in an outlaw haven in Africa. Colorful backlot adventure with Virginia Mayo, Peter Lorre, George Nader and Rex Ingram.

MISTER CORY (1957) – glossy romantic vehicle for Tony Curtis, who plays a gambler. Directed by Blake Edwards.

THE PERFECT FURLOUGH (1959) – my favorite Blake Edwards movie, a very funny service comedy starring Curtis and his then-wife, Janet Leigh.

And those are just a few.

Maureen O’Hara, Anthony Quinn in AGAINST ALL FLAGS (1952)

And that’s all I have to say about Universal Pictures for now, other than to add the link for Film Forum’s Universal schedule:

http://www.filmforum.org/movies/more/universal_100

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