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The Lord of the Rings, If Warner Bros Made It in the 1930s-40s

So, I’ve always liked to kick around the idea of what a Lord of the Rings would have looked like if a studio like Warner Bros. had dedicated all their resources (and perhaps resources of other studios) to making a version during the height of the studio era, discounting the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy was not published until the 1950s. Admittedly, I have not solved all considerations. How would they have portrayed orcs? What about Gollum? And the hobbits? The technology was not there, but it is still fun to speculate.

I have also still not solved all casting conundrums and would like to invite other opinions! Since studio productions of the 1930s and ’40s were always the product of multiple voices and opinions, it seems appropriate.

But rather than present a comprehensive rubric, I would like to offer thoughts for consideration. Actors, composer, make-up artist, production code considerations.

Cast

I don’t think there is any doubt that Warner Bros. would have cast their leading male star as Aragorn: Errol Flynn.


When I taught a class to high school students on the early history of American cinema, I was told that Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood looked like Link. I always thought of Link as an elf, so perhaps Errol Flynn would have made a better Legolas, who is far merrier in the book than he is in the movies, but there is no way Warner Bros. would have given him anything less than the all-important role of the king.

I’m also inclined to think that any studio era production of LOTR would, like the Peter Jackson films, have given Arwen a bigger role. With that in mind, it seems fitting that Arwen should be played by none other than Olivia de Havilland, who would have been an excellent elf.

For Gandalf, I’m partial to the casting of Claude Rains. He’s brilliant in almost anything, but as Gandalf,  he would have brought a wry wit and wisdom – and a lovely voice – that would have been ideal, especially since Gandalf has to carry the heavy lifting of cinematic plot exposition.

Alan Hale might possibly have been cast as Gimli, though the Gimli of the book is far more dignified than in the movies. Though I’m also tickled by the idea of casting Edward G. Robinson, as well. And Patric Knowles for Legolas, perhaps?

Boris Karloff as the Witch King, hands down. And for the important role of Eowyn, quite possibly Bette Davis. I could see her riding her horse, taking on Boris Karloff and raging against being trapped in a cage. And falling in love with Errol Flynn.

How about Sir Cedric Hardwicke for Saruman? And Vincent Price needs to be in the film somehow. Maybe as Wormtongue? John Garfield was a star and would need a role, but I’m a bit stumped on that one. Any thoughts? Also, if James Cagney can appear in a Shakespeare play as Bottom, then surely he could appear in LOTR as somebody…even a hobbit! Okay, so maybe not.

Lionel Atwill should also undoubtedly have a role…perhaps as Elrond. We need a Galadriel, too. Hmm…

Basil Rathbone likewise deserves a role, possibly even a heroic role. Like Boromir or Eomer, though I’m leaning towards Boromir. It strikes me, though, that he could have played the stern Strider who morphs into a king, but it’s doubtful he would have been given the part.

Score

Max Steiner was Warner Bros. most prolific composer of the era and scored over 300 film scores, which boggles the mind. He scored King KongGone With the Wind, CasablancaThe Treasure of the Sierra MadreThe Big Sleep, and The Searchers. He clearly had the epic score down pat.

Costuming and Makeup

In all probability, Warner Bros. would need the experience of Universal Studio’s Jack Pierce, who designed the make-up for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster and Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man. This reminds me that Lon Chaney Jr. should surely have a role in the film, as well. Maybe he could play an orc leader or Uruk-hai? Or Gollum. He actually might be the best bet for Gollum and would certainly bring pathos to the role. Though Bela Lugosi could handle Gollum, as well.

Studio era Hollywood didn’t have a track record with fantasy, so it’s possible that a Lord of the Rings would look more like a medieval horror movie. And actually, we can learn a lot about how a studio era LOTR might have been handled by examining Universal Studios films. The make-up in The Wolf Man was designed not too look realistic. There was concern that it would be too frightening, which means that in all probability the makeup for the orcs would have been muted.

The costumes (or at least the gowns) could be designed by Vera West, who specialized in costuming for Universal’s horror movies: The Bride of FrankensteinThe Wolf Man, various Mummy movies, Dracula. But Walter Plunkett also designed a lot of period garb, most notably for Gone With the Wind, but also The Hunchback of Notre DameThe Three Musketeers, and Singin in the Rain. Perhaps they could design together.

I suspect that for the monsters – like the Balrog – Warner Bros, would also have need the assistance of stop motion animator Willis O’Brien, of King Kong fame.

Direction

Probably Michael Curtiz. He established his bone fides for epics and large crowds with the 1928 silent/talkie hybrid Noah’s Ark. He also directed many of Errol Flynn’s best films, including The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Motion Picture Production Code

On the whole, I think there is not much in LOTR that the Breen Office would have objected to, except excessive violence and gruesomeness. The gruesomeness in particular would have been in relation to the orcs and Uruk-hai. This means the battle scenes, along with the makeup, would have been far less intense, less bloody, more on the line of the battle at the end of The Adventures of Robin Hood. With Universal Horror monsters as the villains.

An adventure/horror film! Which means the movie might end up more lighthearted, more in the spirit of The Hobbit. Though it might depend on whether they took horror or adventure as their model.

What do you think?

This has been my contribution to “the Great Breening Blogathon,” hosted by Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. For more posts on this topic, be sure to check out their site, here.

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Posted by on October 15, 2017 in Movies

 

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Jack Nicholson in The Raven (1963)

Bizarrely enough, I had never before seen Jack Nicholson in a movie until he unexpectedly walked through the door in a 1963 comic B horror movie, The Raven, directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre. I never associated Jack Nicholson with comedy, but the kicker is that in this comedic story with Price, Karloff and Lorre hamming it up for all they are worth, Nicholson is actually pretty funny.

The film opens with Vincent Price, as Dr. Erasmus Craven, quoting Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Dr. Craven is a sensitive soul, a vegetarian and sorcerer who “prefers to practice [his] magic quietly at home” and is still mourning the death of his second wife, Lenore. But into his misanthropic musings comes a real raven, who turns out to be the rather ineffectual Dr. Bedlo (Peter Lorre), transformed into a raven by the magic of Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff), the evil grandmaster of the Brotherhood of Magicians. When Dr. Craven hears from Dr. Bedlo that he thought he saw Lenore (Hazel Court) alive at the castle of Dr. Scarabus, the two set out to investigate.

However, on this dangerous mission they somehow end up bringing the whole family: Craven’s daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess) and Bedlo’s son, Rexford (Jack Nicholson), who fall in love while their parents deal with Scarabus. They arrive at the castle and are met by Scarabus, dripping false benevolence as only Boris Karloff can.

Entering Scarabus’ Domain

The idea of Jack Nicholson as Peter Lorre’s son is pretty funny in itself. As Scarabus says after mistaking Rexford for Craven’s son and being set right, “The resemblance is quite uncanny.” Even Craven asks Bedlo if Rexford favors his mother. Bedlo’s gloomy reply is that “she favors him.”

While the Price, Karloff and Lorre ham it up for all their worth (delightfully), Jack Nicholson steps into the story with perfect earnestness and sincerity, speaking in a kind of deadpan, flat tone. He was originally sent by his mother to find his father and is always trying to take care of him, remonstrate with him, prevent him from drinking too much wine or challenge Scarabus to yet another duel. It’s all the more amusing for his seeming unaware of all the jokes going on around him.

The special effects are hopelessly cheesy, but the cast pretty much knows it and seem to all be having a grand time. Scarabus wants Craven’s secret for magic by hand gestures and the two of them have a magic face-off, rather in the mold of Gandalf and Saruman in The Fellowship of the Rings, only the participants seem to be having more fun in The Raven.

Evidently, Jack Nicholson made his start in B films and appeared in a number of movies directed by Roger Corman. He had all good memories of working with the cast of The Raven, though he didn’t care for the actual raven, who had an inconvenient habit of relieving himself on people. The script is entirely un-serious. Matheson felt that was the only way to adapt a poem to screen. It seems like there are far worse B movies to make at the beginning of a career…and far worse actors to work with.

This post was written as part of the “Here’s Jack Blogathon,” hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews. Be sure to check out more posts about Jack Nicholson for Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3!

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2017 in Movies

 

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Five Favorite Christmas Films…with a few extras

I was recently asked about my five favorite Christmas films by Robert Horvat of If It Happened Yesterday, It’s History and The History of the Byzantine Empire. So without further ado, here are my top go-to Christmas favorites.

Actually, there is some further ado. I realized as I was making the list that I came to my favorite Christmas films somewhat late. Apparently I didn’t watch Christmas movies as a kid? Anyway, they all are from 1939 to 1945. The war years seem to be a sweet spot for me and Christmas films.

Remember the Night (1940) – John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) is the upright Assistant DA whose specialty is prosecuting woman because he can appear gentle and therefore not alienate a sympathetic jury. But when Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) steals a diamond bracelet and is caught just before Christmas, he manages to get the trial postponed. Feeling guilty because she now has to spend Christmas in prison, he pays her bail and offers to drive her to her home in Indiana. But she ends up staying at his family home and for the first time experiences what a loving family can be like

That description sounds syrupy, but it’s actually a funny script that is both touching and ironic. Written by Preston Sturges, he said it had a little bit “of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz.” Sturges’ idea was that love made Lee honest and John crooked. Lee is a street-smart, petty thief and con artist who appears confident, but is really longing for stability and love. We discover that her mother always thought she would come to no good and Lee is living out her expectations. Meanwhile John’s mother (played by Beulah Bondi) always expected him to succeed, which he does, though falling in love with Lee makes him want to break the law to help her.

The ending is not your typical happy ending; there is room for several interpretations, but it is still completely satisfying. Also in the film is Sterling Holloway.

Bachelor Mother (1939) – I love nearly everything Ginger Rogers appeared in in the 1930s. Bachelor Mother was made near the end of her collaboration with Fred Astaire at RKO and was a hit for her. Polly Parrish is out of work in New York when she sees a woman leave a baby on the steps of an orphanage. She picks the baby up, but is then mistaken for the baby’s mother. When she denies this, they go to her former employers at the John B. Merlin and Son department store. Thinking that her abandonment of the baby is related to losing her job, John B. Merlin’s son, David (David Niven), insists that she keep her baby and only then will he give her job back.

She agrees out of desperation and soon David falls in love. Adding to the fun is David’s father (Charles Coburn), who assumes the baby is his grandchild and wants to raise the child himself since David and Polly don’t seem willing to do the right thing, as he imagines it. Ginger Rogers always excelled at these kinds of roles: a working girl, tough and yet sweet, not above a little conniving, but essentially honest. Pure delight.

Holiday Inn (1942) – Holiday Inn is one of two films that Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire made together and they are a fantastic duo of contrasting styles and camaraderie. They even get a song about their contrasting styles. Crosby sings of how he’ll woo the girl through singing, while Astaire says that he’ll sweep her off her feet with dancing. In a fun bit of joshing, Crosby tries to dance and Astaire tries a little singing; neither with any success. They remain throughout the film, semi-friendly rivals for the affections of not one, but two girls.

Jim Hardy (Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Astaire) have a joint act, but when Hardy loses his girl to Ted, he decides to relax and enjoy life and buy a farm. The farm isn’t as relaxing as he’d hoped, so he turns his farm into an Inn. The idea is that he’ll put on a show every holiday: Christmas, Washington’s Birthday, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, Easter, The 4th of July, etc. But inevitably, he and Ted end up fighting over another woman, sabotaging each other at every turn, in between some fantastic songs and dances, all written by Irving Berlin. Fred Astaire dances with firecrackers, the song “White Christmas” is introduced for the first time by Crosby, Astaire dances while drunk, Crosby sings “Easter Parade.”

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) Another great Christmas film starring Barbara Stanwyck! Elizabeth Lane (Stanwyck) writes a column about her farm in Connecticut, her husband and baby and all the wonderful food she cooks, which is followed faithfully by female readers around the country. The only hitch is that none of it’s true. She can’t even cook and gets her recipes from a friend, Felix (S.Z. Sakall) who owns a restaurant.

But when a sailor (Dennis Morgan) miraculously survives having his ship torpedoed, the magazine’s owner, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) has the idea for a publicity stunt where they’ll invite the sailor to her farm and give him a taste of the ideal American domesticity. Of course, she has to then scramble to find a farm, a husband and even a baby so she doesn’t lose her job. She also brings Felix along to cook for her. But when the sailor arrives, she finds herself attracted and mayhem ensues.

The incredible cast also includes Una O’Connor and Reginald Gardiner.

Shop Around the Corner (1940) – One of my favorite Ernst Lubitsch films, this is the film that also first made me really like Jimmy Stewart. Two co-workers at a leathergoods shop in Budapest, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan), do not get along with each other, but what they don’t realize is that they are secret pen palls. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was remade several times as the musical In The Good Old Summertime and Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail.

It’s a completely charming story with a bit of a dark side involving a side plot with a suicide attempt, infidelity and loneliness. Alfred Kralik and co-worker Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) discuss how much money you need to support a family. Alfred and Klara, in their letter writing, are reaching out for something beyond the mundane of work, as they discuss everything from philosophy, poetry and culture. Ironically, they bond intellectually and it is only when they meet in person that it becomes difficult to navigate through their attraction to each other, which manifests itself as dislike and arguments. The film also stars Frank Morgan of Wizard of Oz fame.

Other favorites:

The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (1966) – Here’s one Christmas film I always watched faithfully as a child. Dr. Suess’ book is faithfully adapted as an animated TV film narrated by Boris Karloff and to me, Boris Karloff will always be the Grinch, no matter how many of his iconic horror films I see. The remake with Jim Carrey has nothing on the original, which still makes me smile endlessly.

Larceny Inc. (1942) – Edward G. Robinson became famous playing brutal gangsters, but he also made many comedic gangster films. One of these is Larceny Inc., where he is just out of prison and wants to turn over a new leaf. But he needs money to buy the dog racing track that will enable to be both honest and rich and the bank won’t give him a loan, so he decides that he must commit one more crime. He buys a luggage shop that is right next door to the bank and begins tunneling in the shop’s basement. But despite all his attempts, his luggage shop is a financial success and he begins to make friends with his shop owner neighbors. Most of the story takes place during Christmas time and we even get to see him dressed as Santa!

An Affair to Remember (1957) – And I have to mention this one, which Nora Ephron used for inspiration in her film Sleepless in Seattle. It’s been called sappy, syrupy and hopelessly coincidental, but I love it and always cry at the end (just like Rosie O’Donnell and Meg Ryan – the ending takes place on Christmas day). It is tremendously helped by the sparkling chemistry and dialogue between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. The film is actually a remake of Love Affair, which Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, another superior film.

Ahhh! After completing this post I realized that I forgot about The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), directed and written by Preston Sturges. A hilarious screwball comedy about a young woman in a small town in America who parties, gets drunk, marries and can’t remember who she married. But she’s pregnant and the film is about her family’s reaction, the town’s reaction and the attempts of her suitor to help her. Starring Betty Hutton, Eddie Bracken and William Demarest.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2015 in Movies

 

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