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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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Desperate Journey (1942)

220px-Desperate_Journey_-_PosterDuring WWII, Errol Flynn made a string of war related movies. His first one was Desperate Journey, released in 1942 and was finished filming just as America was entering the war. It’s basically a giant escape film, or perhaps a giant chase. Five crew members of a downed bomber attempt to escape Germany. Hot on their trail is Raymond Massey’s Major Baumeister. They roam about Germany, wreaking havoc, commit a little sabotage, conk Nazis on the head, steal cars, meet some German underground members and hop a ride on Göring’s private, though empty, train car. It’s all incredibly coincidental (their car runs out of gas and a gas truck drives by) and highly patriotic, but a fun, if not memorable, ride.

The movie begins by showing a member of the Polish underground give his life to blow up a bridge. Before he dies, though, he manages to send a message by pigeon to the allies in England. Using this information, they believe there will now be a bottleneck of trains waiting for the bridge to be repaired and they intend to bomb those trains. They send out one bomber with a crew of eight. Part of that crew is the second in command, Terry Forbes (Errol Flynn), Johnny Hammond (Ronald Reagan), Kirk Edwards (Alan Hale), Lloyd Hollis (Ronald Sinclair), and Jed Forrest (Arthur Kennedy). The captain is injured when a Nazi plane attacks them and Terry decides to risk going below the cover of the clouds to see if he can see the target. The result is a crash.

They are captured by the Nazis, but manage to escape, ransack Major Baumeister’s office and steal some important documents showing the location of a Messerschmitt factory. And the chase is on. Baumeister is particularly determined to find them because if anyone found out that they had stolen those documents from him, he might be sent to the Russian Front (always a terrifying threat in the movies – spoofed repeatedly and hilariously in the show Hogan’s Heroes).

Errol Flynn, Alan Hale, Arthur Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Ronald Sinclair - that is Raymond Massey's head

Errol Flynn, Alan Hale, Arthur Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Ronald Sinclair – that is Raymond Massey’s head

The crew is somewhat hampered, however, by Hollis, who is very young and tires easily. But on the whole, the crew is pretty harmonious, without any real internal tension. Jed Forrest does try to curb Terry’s penchant for reckless daring-do, but never questions his right to lead.

The crew is puzzlingly multi-national. Aussie Terry (Flynn, unsurprisingly) is his usual high-spirited self as an officer who would really prefer flying fighter planes to bombers, while Canadian Jed ( Kennedy) used to be a bookkeeper and loves facts and figures and certainties. Kirk (Hale – one of at least twelves movies he did with Flynn) fought in the first world war and lied about his age and died his hair so that he could fight in this one after his son died at Dunkirk. But he’s no brooding Lear. He’s very Alan Hale-ish, full of broad humor, practical jokes, and a desire for good food.  And the very English Hollis (Sinclair) is still a kid, who’s father was a great WWI hero who shot down 43 Germans.

But oddly enough, the man who stands out the most is Ronald Reagan’s American Johnny. It’s not because the character is a complex one, but he brings an easy-going and street-smart presence to the film. There is a funny scene when Baumeister tries to get him to tell him the secret of how American planes can fly at higher altitudes than Nazi ones and through an incredible patter of gibberish and nonsense words, like thermathrockle, delivered at a tremendous rate, Johnny contrives knock out Baumeister.

It was acknowledged to be the best scene in the film because Flynn desperately wanted it for himself, though the director, Raoul Walsh, refused to give it to him. I was surprised to see that Reagan shared top billing with Errol Flynn. Reagan had just been poised to move into leading roles, apparently. He had received a good deal of attention for his role in Kings Row, but just as his career was about to be boosted, he was called up and spent the rest of the war in the army, though he did not fight overseas. It effectually deflated his career.

The crew with the obligatory female character, played by Nancy Coleman

The crew with the obligatory female character, played by Nancy Coleman

Flynn did not fight during WWII. He was not well, though. His draft board physical revealed that he had tuberculosis in one lung and while filming his next movie, Gentleman Jim, he suffered a minor heart attack. He was only thirty-two and tragically had already run his health into the ground.

The score for Desperate Journey is ridiculously sweeping and patriotic. Composed by Max Steiner (not the subtlest of composers: King Kong, Gone With the Wind), he used “God Save the King” (or is it “My Country Tis of Thee”?) as a recurring theme and it is always blowing about, portentously martial, in the background, at odds with the more lighthearted ethos of the actors.

While watching, I had a random thought. Are there any enemy uniforms more readily stolen and worn in movies than Nazi uniforms? The crew spends half the film in Nazi uniforms and this is not unusual for Hollywood films. My theory is that it is because, though representative of an evil ideology and government, they are still by far the coolest uniforms ever (which is a pity). The boots, the nicely fitted jackets, the long coats – though not the helmets, but what helmet doesn’t look faintly ridiculous. Hollywood has always delighted to get their heroes into Nazi uniforms (something that also happens a lot in Hogan’s Heroes).

Below is a clip of Ronald Reagan double-talking Raymond Massey.

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2015 in Movies

 

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King Kong (1933) – My Childhood Impressions and Adult Reactions

untitledI saw King Kong first when I was a child and through the years I always retained a foggy, general idea of how the story went, but there were four things that I always remembered distinctly: the moment when Fay Wray first sees Kong and screams her head off, Kong stepping on a man and squishing him into the ground, Fay Wray being filmed while on the boat and being told to look into the sky and scream for her life, and Fay Wray screaming while Kong carries her off. The screaming made a big impression on me. And I remember that I watched the film with a number of other children roughly my age and that there were some tears shed at the end.

I don’t remember being sorry when Kong died, but I think it was because he had squished that man into the ground.

Years later, I saw Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong. 2005 is now almost ten years ago and though my memories of the recent film are much clearer, through the years the two movies increasingly merged together in my mind and it was with great interest that last weekend I re-watched the 1933 King Kong and tried to untangle my memories.

My first reaction, unfortunately, was disappointment. Kong looked far more fake than I had ever realized, though I was not mistaken about the amount of screaming. However, once I got over that, I was able to settle in and enjoy the film. And while watching the film, I had a revelation. If a giant mega-gorilla came roaring at me, I’d scream my head off, too. And if that giant mega-gorilla carried me off, swung me high off the ground, put me on a very high tree, put me on a ledge in a cave, took me to various locations were various monsters tried to eat me and then chased me through the streets of New York and finally carried me to the top of a 1,454 ft. building, I might even faint dead away. If you scream on roller coasters, then you would definitely scream with Kong.

The moment when Kong is smitten and Fay Wray is not

King Kong is smitten – though Fay Wray is less so

It’s really a unique film, at least as far as I have ever seen. It draws you in and makes you sympathize with Kong. It is amazing how much sympathy they can generate for a character that is really just a puppet; a puppet in a mostly live action film.

Most people are familiar with the plot of King Kong. Movie director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) has a map and is looking for a legendary creature, the great Kong, who is supposed to be on an island where no European has ever been. He needs a leading lady and picks up hungry Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) from the street and he and his crew go off to Skull Island to shoot his film. Once there, Ann is kidnapped by the natives and sacrificed to Kong.

Kong is smitten, Ann is later rescued and then Kong is captured by Denham and his crew and brought back to New York as a great attraction, billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. But of course Kong escapes and goes after Ann and climbs up to the top of the Empire State Building, where he is shot down by airplanes.

20141028_king-kong-1933_33When he is dead, Denham comments that it was not planes, but beauty that killed the beast. Denham rides this theme for all it’s worth through out the movie. In that respect, King Kong is a monster/adventure retelling of a classic fairytale. Although Kong’s affection does not appear to be reciprocated and he is not changed into anything other than he is. But that’s because there are other themes going on in the film, such as the beast being destroyed by civilization, a sort of high powered, collective, mechanized beast.

And of course the moment when Kong is shot down by the pilot with machine guns is quite a sad one. Here is this powerful, mighty creature being taken down by machines that he can’t possibly understand. I was watching the documentary that came with the second disc of the restored edition of the film, and the commentators (all men) were almost lyrical about the death of Kong. I have to admit, however, that my reaction as an adult was still somewhat similar to what it was when I was a child. I still didn’t quite feel the tragic pathos of his death. It was sad, but he had just killed dozens of people who we are never given time to feel bad for and that always makes me feel more bad for them than for the creature getting killed (I have this problem with all disaster and monster movies – those unnamed, random people dying in droves).

Kong pulling up Fay Wray and her other love interest, Bruce Cabot

Kong pulling up Fay Wray and her other love interest, Bruce Cabot

My theory is that empathizing with Kong to that extent is more of a guy thing. It seems to resonate with them more. One commentator said that Kong had a soul, which is true that he’s more than just a large gorilla, but if that’s the case, than he is morally culpable for all those deaths (perhaps I am over-analyzing the moral aspect of this film). So, though I felt for him, I was not quite rooting for him.

What was really cruel was to capture Kong and bring him to New York, though if you really think about it, by taking him away from the island, they saved the lives of the remaining islanders, who now have no barrier between them and Kong (since he breaks through the gate). But then the Islander’s shouldn’t have kidnapped Ann. Of course, perhaps Denham shouldn’t have been arrogantly barging in in the first place.

Still, part fairy tale, part adventure, part romance, part monster movie – King Kong seems to combine so much that resonates with people in many different ways and I found it oddly compelling. It was a huge hit when it was released in 1933 -which was the height of the American depression when unemployment was 25% – though Kong had stiff competition from top grossing films by Greta Garbo, Mae West and the musical 42nd Street. King Kong must have really stood out, however, in a year that produced Little Women and musicals with Mae West and Ruby Keeler, and Greta Garbo’s Queen Christina.

I think to really appreciate it, you have to watch RKO Production 601: The Making of ‘Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World’, the two and half hour documentary that was produced by Peter Jackson and is included on the second disc of the two disc DVD release of King Kong. The documentary is in eight parts and includes everything from a biography of Merian C. Cooper, the producer and originator of the King Kong story who led an out-sized life, to the development and invention of stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien that made King Kong, and all future movies reliant on special effects, possible.

Bruce Cabot, Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong

Bruce Cabot, Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong

Anyone who has ever watched the copious how-they-made-it discs on Peter Jackson’s extended editions of his Lord of the Rings films knows that he never does anything by halves. There is a discussion of how Max Steiner (composer for movies like Gone With the Wind) revolutionized movie score composition. In fact, if you think about most movies from 1933 and before, there are hardly any original scores and often not even music, except for diegetic music (music that comes from within the movie, a record or a band playing). Steiner’s score for King Kong is almost like a modern score: thematic music for characters, using music to tell the story. In the documentary they argue – and I think it is true – that half the sympathy the film generates for Kong is because of the music. There is also a discussion about how Murray Spivak essentially founded modern sound recording for these kind of films. He was the first to think to combine various animal noises to create new and unique roars and growls.

What I especially enjoyed was the detailed discussion of how stop-motion animation is done and Peter Jackson and a team from WETA go into great detail as they attempt to imagine and film a missing scene from King Kong involving spiders so that it could fit seamlessly into the film, using the same kind of equipment. These guys are obviously major King Kong fanatics, but it was extremely illuminating just how complicated it was to make the film; suddenly Kong didn’t look so cheesy to me when I realized what a staggering achievement it was.

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Posted by on November 12, 2014 in Fantasy, Horror

 

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