Excavating Beware

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The most obscure feature on our present calendar is undoubtedly Beware, a 1946 Louis Jordan vehicle—so obscure, indeed, that we haven’t seen it yet.  (We have seen Jordan’s follow-up, Look-Out Sister, and it’s a beaut. Not only a beaut, but also a western. How can you not love a movie whose title ostensibly derives from a tossed-off warning to an overweight woman at the tip of a diving board?) Beware is not a forgotten film, per se—that would imply that somewhere or another people had seen it and thought something towards it.

Instead, Beware is an impossibly marginal movie and always has been.  Given the talent involved, it could not be otherwise.

One of the pinnacle moments of cinema…

Consider first Astor Pictures Corporation, its distributor and putative producer. Astor was known largely for its reissues—exhumed studio product licensed for limited re-exploitation. Through its corporate hands passed countless B westerns and such antique UA fare as Street Scene, Rain, The Front Page, I Cover the Waterfront, and Our Daily Bread. Come to think of it, given the dismal prints we see today of all these, was old Astor more a meat grinder for original camera negatives than a bonafide distributor? No matter—Astor’s 1939 mounting of Tumbleweeds yielded one of the pinnacle moments of cinema: a preposterously moving eight minute introduction, William S. Hart’s only screen monologue, that easily eclipsed the feature that followed.

Race pictures like Beware were another niche product that Astor offered, with nearly 700 specialty houses that catered to black audiences hankering for non-studio depictions of minority life. Today it seems a mark of courage that Astor fronted Oscar Micheaux’s disastrous final feature, The Betrayal, and had the chutzpah to open it on Broadway yet in 1948. (Now presumed lost, The Betrayal fancied itself “The Greatest Negro Photoplay of All Times” and ran about twenty minutes shy of Gone with the Wind.)

Half-Sheet from Astor Release of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD

Later on, Astor dabbled in Poverty Row shockers and Euro art house attractions. Can any other distributor claim both Robot Monster and Last Year at Marienbad on its ledger? Astor also saw to the stateside release of Shoot the Piano Player, The Trial, Peeping Tom, Victim, and Zazie dans le métro before folding in 1963.

Astor made only a handful of forays into production, mostly involving Jordan. They had seen encouraging success distributing Jordan’s short Caldonia, co-produced by Jordan’s manager, Berle Adams, and soundies vet William Forest Crouch. With 26 regional offices, Astor was an independent that could move product with the best of them. Though its infrastructure was not quite as large as the majors, its terms were more flexible, which pleased exhibitors. Billboard described the scheme with some admiration in June 1946:

“Louis Jordan’s use of the film short, Caldonia, as an exploitation medium, differs from most ork promotional stunts in that it is itself a direct source of revenue. The movies have helped the one-nighters, which have also been helped by recordings, which have also helped the movies, which in turn have become more profitable. It’s a delicious circle, and other bands are now exploring the possibilities …

“The way it has worked out, indie theater operators have broken their necks to get Caldonia, where they shy away from name band shorts produced by major film studios. Caldonia is available to theaters for $25-$50, with no strings, whereas a major distributor will never release an individual film to an individual theater, always demanding block deals, and never guaranteeing timing of the film’s booking with band’s personal appearance in the town.

“Caldonia usually opens in a town a few days before Jordan arrives. He habitually makes a personal appearance at the theater, signing autographs, plugging his concert or dance, winning new clients.”

An audience buying tickets at the Regal in late-1940s Chicago.

Seizing upon this successful exploitation, Astor head R.M. Savini began developing a feature with Jordan and Adams. Beware would feature seven tunes from the Adams-Jordan back catalog, again betting on that delicious circle. In the same Billboard article, Savini expressed the hope that Beware, what with its responsible portrayal of Jordan the college graduate, would garner a hitherto-untapped wholesome segment of a race film market usually given over to juke joint quickies. New York’s Filmcraft Studios offered all the necessary locations.

The director of Beware, Bud Pollard, added his own awesome note of marginality. Pollard’s long, not-nearly-fully-understood career suggests multiple, often simultaneous, dimensions of hucksterism. (Fittingly, the Pollard obituaries published in Film News and Business Screen Magazine in 1952 cited him as the first president of the Screen Directors Guild!) There was no low-budget junk outside Pollard’s range or beneath his dignity. In a mere three years—1931 to 1933—he helmed a race film, an Italian-language picture, the Jewish-themed Intolerance of 1933, a poor man’s Alice in Wonderland released simultaneously to theatrical and nontheatrical markets, and a handful of less distinguished exploitation pictures, including Girls for Sale. Pollard even took out a trade ad that proudly owned the exploitation label. (Like all exploitation entrepreneurs, he later found his own found footage assemblages purloined, repurposed, and exploited by a fresh crop of showmen.) Needless to say, Pollard was white. Indeed, by 1947, he was an archetypical sneering, pudgy, cigar-chomping movie man.

On the set of LOOK-OUT SISTER: Director Bud Pollard, Musician/Actor Louis Jordan, Manager Berle Adams. Courtesy of Billboard Magazine

In many ways the most distinguished and unexpected name associated with Beware is cinematographer Don Malkames. For many years the head cameraman at New York’s Astoria Studios, Malkames also photographed, among other things, newsreels, the Yiddish comedy Motl the Operator, and Edgar G. Ulmer’s St. Benny the Dip. His official and unaccountable career was overshadowed in some circles by his reputation as an unparalleled tinkerer and collector of historical motion picture equipment and arcana. A natural magician capable of converting obsolete non-standard gauge projectors into one-of-a-kind optical printers, Malkames left a restoration legacy surpassed only by that of his own son, Karl. (The son paid loving tribute to his father and their shared cabinet of curiosities in a sumptuous and genuinely educational short The Motion Picture Camera in 1979.)

Broadly speaking, the talent involved with a film like Beware bespeaks a compacted, vertiginous social history. Moreso than the sad souls whose affairs were managed by the studios, these people led lives and left clues that point back towards a tangle of interrelated institutions, organizations, lifestyles, postures, and sensibilities now long gone.  They’re suggestive links, things that expand our sense of what people saw when they went to the pictures, what they brought with them, and why they went in the first place. Remarkably, many of our finest black jazz and blues performers found little work in the movies. The natural charisma of a Louis Jordan had no place in a studio’s A picture slate and the only substantial filmed records we have are in these marginal things. R.M. Savini lamented that many of the name band leaders shunned independent productions and “shoot for Hollywood and what has often turned out to be burial in a girlie pic.” We shouldn’t repeat that mistake. (KW)

The Northwest Chicago Film Society will be screening Beware in a beautiful 35mm preservation print from the Library of Congress at the Portage Theater on April 20. Please see our current calendar for more information.

FOR FURTHER READING

The world of low-rent song and dance pictures was thoughtfully explored in Film Forum’s 2007 series B Musicals. The Village Voice published a helpful roundtable on the subject.

The history of independent filmmaking in New York has been lavishly detailed in Richard Koszarski’s recent book, Hollywood on the Hudson. Anthony Slide’s Historical Dictionary of the American Film Industry remains an invaluable resource when researching the whereabouts of forgotten film companies.

Did anyone else notice that reams of back issues of Billboard quietly became available for browsing on Google Books?

Courtesy A Cinema Apart

This entry was posted in Blog and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.