Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Nobody Knows Anything, Part 2: Franchises

Besides bankable stars, another idea that has worked in Hollywood for a very long time is the franchise, a character or set of characters that audiences relate to. Sometimes the actors become strongly identified with the roles, but sometimes the studio can change actors and the franchise moves on. For example, The Keystone Cops movies were very popular in the early silent days, but the audience did not care in the least that different actors were in the uniforms from picture to picture.

People love collies... named Lassie: From the very beginning of films, there were animal stars. A shell-shocked pup was brought back from World War I to America by a returning doughboy, who gave the dog the unlikely name of Rin Tin Tin, the name of a puppet French schoolchildren would give to American troops for good luck. The dog became a major star who did survive the change to the talkies, no one noticing the obvious French accent when he barked. The original Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, according to legend in the arms of Jean Harlow, and though a nation mourned, successor Rin Tin Tins carried on the family name.

Likewise, there were huge hit films starring collies, but not much in the way of success unless the dog's name was Lassie. In the films in the 1940s, Lassie had some very strong co-stars, like Roddy McDowell and Elizabeth Taylor, but by the 1950s, Lassie was stuck on TV with kids who didn't completely understand how dangerous wells can be.

No loyalty needed: With animal stars, it was obvious the audience would be willing to see the films even if they knew they weren't watching the same dog as they saw in the previous installment. With franchises starring actual people, the crowds sometimes didn't care if a new actor showed up. The most obvious of all the franchises where the title character trumped the actor was the Charlie Chan series, which starred three different actors over the years, Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters. Before Pearl Harbor, the fact most of America knew about Hawaii was that Charlie Chan lived in Honolulu, though he did travel quite a bit.

Other franchises also changed actors, though the modern audiences might now forget it. Universal had four major movie monsters, and though the public now thinks of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Cheney, Jr. as The Wolf Man and Karloff again as The Mummy. All of those roles were played by several actors during the era when monster movies were a major franchise for Universal Studios.

The actor changes, and that was a mistake: Tarzan has been around as a movie franchise for a very long time. In the silent era, Elmo Lincoln played Edgar Rice Burroughs legendary ape man, but in the talkies era, a Romanian born star of the U.S. Olympic team named Johnny Weissmuller took on the role and the audiences ate it up. The audiences were willing to accept when someone besides Maureen O'Sullivan played Jane, but Weissmuller was Tarzan, Johnny Sheffield was Boy and Cheetah was Cheetah from 1932 to 1948, when Weissmuller decided at the age of 44 he'd like to wear pants in his next movie and took on the role of Jungle Jim, a great white hunter. They kept making Tarzan movies, but the production values went down and they really weren't the same.

Weissmuller has been quoted as saying the famous Tarzan yell was actually a sound mixing miracle, the combination of the voices of a soprano, an alto and a hog caller. This makes it all the more remarkable how good a job Carol Burnett can do with it all by herself.

Sometimes, loyalty pays: Both William Powell and Myrna Loy were veterans of films since the silent days when they were cast as the party loving socialites and detectives Nick and Nora Charles in 1934's The Thin Man, taken from a novel by Dashiell Hammett. (Note: The title character is who they are chasing, not Nick Charles, though Powell stayed relatively slender throughout his career.) Audiences wanted to see them again and again, and a series of Thin Man movies were made. The surprise of this series, the Nobody Knows Anything result from here is that this series took these veteran actors and turned them into bankable stars. They could work together playing characters that weren't Nick and Nora and crowds would come see them. They could play opposite other actors and draw a crowd as well. In general, the star making ability of a franchise film is unpredictable at best and just plain weak at worst, but William Powell and Myrna Loy both got big breaks by appearing together in The Thin Man.

Loyalty pays, but not both ways: Like the Thin Man series, the Sherlock Holmes movies from 1939 to 1946 made the audience a promise and that promise paid off. Basil Rathbone IS Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce IS Dr. Watson.

This longtime connection with a popular character did not translate into bankable stardom for either Rathbone or Bruce. Bruce remained a minor character actor and most of Rathbone's career when he wasn't wearing the deerstalker cap was playing villains.

More on one remarkable aspect of Rathbone's career later today.

The franchise that changed everything: Franchises tended to be lower budget films, many of them creating movies designed to be second features or shorts. But in 1962, a Scottish actor best known to American audiences for being in Darby O'Gill and The Little People was cast as James Bond, and the most successful movie franchise in history was born, with the series still thriving nearly 40 years later and five changes of cast.

As a launching pad for careers, playing James Bond has been very hit and miss. Sean Connery is still a movie star, but his bankability just after leaving Bond was very spotty. (The Molly Maguires, anyone? Maybe a second viewing of Zardoz?) After trying to turn an unknown George Lazenby into Bond, the producers decided to go with a suave TV actor with Roger Moore, and the series survived. Neither Lazenby or Moore had that much of a career post-007, nor did Timothy Dalton. Pierce Brosnan had some successes when he wasn't Bond, most notably in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, and time will tell how we judge Daniel Craig's tenure as Bond and his career when he isn't drinking shaken and not stirred martinis.

A writer/director creates a franchise: Often, a franchise is created by bringing a popular character from books to the screen, as is the case in all the previously mentioned films. A very different kind of franchise was created by Christopher Guest. He starred in the successful comedy This Is Spinal Tap, which was written largely as improvisational scenes. Instead of deciding to make Spinal Tap II and Spinal Tap III, he made a franchise out of improvisational comedy film writing, and went on to make such varied films as Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. He has done other acting in that time, and even directed non-improvisational films such as The Big Picture and the remake of Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, (ahem!), but his bankability is based on a type of film that nobody else makes.

This ends the plug for my adopted actor/director/genre creator, and ends this installment of Nobody Knows Anything. More chapters coming... all this week! Stay tuned.


CDP said...

Awesome! I absolutely love the Thin Man movies (although the first is by far the best) and Myrna Loy was also great in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with Cary Grant. If you haven't seen The Matador (with Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis), I'd really recommend it.

Karen Zipdrive said...

Nice work, my dear.

Lisa said...

Yes, you definitely hit on one of my favorites times in movie making.

With or without giantesses.

namastenancy said...

What a fabulous series of posts! Movies AND math. You are a man of many talents!