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Cinema: The New Pictures: Nov. 14, 1938

7 minute read

Rhythm of the Saddle (Republic) cost about $100,000. If it nets less than $200,000 its producers will feel cheated. The chances are that it will bring in much more than that. Rhythm of the Saddle is by no means a unique investment for Republic. The company makes eight such films a year and all of them do about equally well.

The cause of this wholesale bonanza is a single star: Gene Autry. Though most cinemaddicts in big cities have never seen him on the screen and never heard of him, Gene Autry is not only by far the most famed performer in modern “westerns” but quite possibly the most popular cinemactor in the world.

Popularity of a movie star can be measured by box-office value, fan mail, exhibitors’ polls, salary. Owners of theatres in small villages and small cities, where westerns are most favored and where Hollywood’s most touted stars often play to empty seats, call Autry the industry’s “mortgage lifter.” His fan mail averages 4,000 letters a week, more than Clark Gable’s or Shirley Temple’s. In exhibitor polls of western stars he stands at the top. Autry’s pay, $12,500 per picture, is not what it might be, but this is not his fault. He had to fight to get it raised from $5,000 per picture last year. Other companies would gladly pay him much more but Republic, which gave him his first chance and put him on the map, has him under unbreakable contract.

In addition to being the outstanding star in modern westerns, Autry is largely responsible for their survival. Once the backbone of the industry, westerns four years ago were a drug on the market. The only change in them since silent days had been the popping of revolvers. Since the hero never got shot, this noise had ceased to excite their audiences.

Autry’s revolutionary contribution to westerns was a soft, sleepy-sounding baritone voice. A onetime telegrapher for the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, who had used his ample spare time in learning to sing and strum the guitar, Autry had later become a crooner of plains ballads for smalltime radio stations. When Republic decided to try to save westerns with the experiment of a singing cowboy, he was selected for the spot and succeeded instantly.

Since then half a dozen other singing cowboys, like Warner’s Princetonian Dick Foran, Universal’s Bob Baker, have profited from the vogue Autry started. Even nonsinging cowboys like Columbia’s Buck Jones, Paramount’s Bill Boyd have taken a new lease on life.

In singing westerns, as in other musical pictures, songs must be “excused,” which accounts for the fact that most of the action which does not occur on horseback occurs in well-appointed cafés. Also, as in Rhythm of the Saddle, which has an unbelievably elaborate racketeer and gambler plot, heroes are more likely to be rodeo performers than practicing cowboys. Western devotees, growing effete, do not find these anomalies objectionable.

As befits the No. 1 idol of U. S. youth, Autry does not drink or smoke. He lives with his pretty wife on a ten-acre “ranch” in San Fernando Valley, where he stables “Champion” and his five other less famed horses. Last year sales of Autry’s phonograph records equaled those of Bing Crosby’s. A manufacturer who set up a line of toy revolvers modeled on the one he carries sold 100,000 in three weeks.

Hollywood, to whom such phenomena should be as interesting as a $1,000,000 bank balance to a Wall Street broker, remains as stubbornly unaware of Autry as other U. S. population centres. Autry pictures rarely play in major Los Angeles theatres, and Autry is seldom recognized on the rare occasions when he appears in public. Irritated by his obscurity, the cinema’s most popular star draws attention to himself by wearing cowboy clothes off screen as well as on, has a special white gabardine cowboy suit for evening wear. He takes off his cowboy suits only for bed or golf, owns no conventional clothes. Gene Autry’s real name is Gene Autry. His next picture, due in about a month, will be Western Jamboree.

The Young in Heart (Selznick International). Doddering Ellen Fortune (Minnie Dupree) is a tender-hearted eccentric who, from an unhappy romance in her youth, has derived the philosophy that the secret of happiness lies in trusting those one loves. The Carletons—card-sharping Colonel Anthony (Roland Young), mercenary Marmy (Billie Burke), fortune-hunting Rick (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and gold-digging George-Ann (Janet Gaynor)—are a family of international rogues united strongly by their common belief in and proficiency at the more polite forms of mooching, chiseling and outright thievery.

When, after getting to know the Carletons on board a train, the lonely old lady applies her creed to her new friends and the Carletons apply their technique to her bank account, the results are as might be expected. The Carletons move into the Fortune mansion in London to wait for the old lady to die and leave them all her money. Softened by years of living by their wits, they not only lack the moral fibre to take advantage of their hostess but even allow her to rob them of their resistance to right-living. They succumb so completely that the Colonel goes to work and both children get respectably engaged.

Adapted from I. A. R. Wylie’s Saturday Evening Post serial, The Gay Banditti, The Young in Heart never permits its audience much doubt about how the lion & lamb relationship of its major characters will eventually resolve itself. However, if it has often been told before, the story has rarely been told better. Richard Wallace’s direction, Paul Osborn’s screen play, Franz Waxman’s score and the acting of precisely the right cast combine to make it the wittiest and most civilized cinema comedy of the year. Good sequence: Colonel Carleton and his son, whose morning diversion is watching excavations, discussing Capital and Labor while they wait for the noon whistle to blow so that they can go to lunch.

The Great Waltz (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). In Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Hollywood brilliantly reflected the changing moods of a U. S. generation through the songs of its outstanding composer. What that picture did for Irving Berlin, The Great Waltz does, in an utterly different but equally effective way, for Viennese Johann Strauss.

In addition, through the gay pattern of his waltzes, sung or played with an effectiveness rarely surpassed on a cinema sound track, The Great Waltz lightly weaves a fragmentary legend of the composer’s life. The result is an operetta in which, for once, story and score become part of the same picture—the familiar tapestry, this time brighter and more improbable than ever, of life and young love in old Vienna.

That The Great Waltz succeeds so notably in evoking the flowery nostalgia inherent in Strauss’s music may be partly due to the ironic fact that world events have made imperial Vienna something more than the stock romantic setting it was when a similar operetta had its Manhattan stage opening four years ago. Certainly, admirers of the new Vienna will find much to deplore in the picture’s affectionate portrait of an era when the principal effect of Revolution was that it inspired a young musician to write a march; and when the most important effect of barricades in the Vienna streets was to cause the same young composer (Fernand Gravet) to leave his wife (Luise Rainer) at home in order to enjoy an early morning drive with a full-throated opera singer (Miliza Korjus).

As unreal and as graceful as the music it records and celebrates, The Great Waltz should charm most cinemaddicts, give opponents of swing their happiest moments of the season. Good sequence: Strauss, driving through the outskirts of his city at dawn, fusing the song of a bird, the notes of a shepherd’s flute, the salute of a carriage horn into Tales from the Vienna Woods.

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