Skipalong Rosenbloom, by Michael H. Price
“In the days before the cultural faucets of radio and television had become standard equipment in each home,” wrote the social critic Gunther Anders in 1956, “the [American public] used to throng the motion-picture theaters where they collectively consumed the stereotyped mass products manufactured for them…
“[The] motion-picture industry … continues the tradition of the theater,” added Anders, “… a spectacle designed for simultaneous consumption by a large number of spectators. Such a situation is obsolete.”
Anders’ influential gadfly manifesto, The Phantom World of TV, came fairly late in the initial outcropping of a Cold War between movies and teevee. Earlier during the 1950s, the movie industry had begun arraying such competitive big-screen ripostes to television as widescreen cinematography, three-dimensional projection – and such passive-aggressive lampoons of television as Arch Oboler’s The Twonky and Sam Newfield’s Skipalong Rosenbloom.
Anders’ perception of obsolescence for moviegoing has proved no such thing over the long stretch, of course – despite many movie theaters’ best efforts during the past generation to render the experience overpriced, inconvenient and unsanitary with cheapened operational standards and automated film-handling procedures. And yet film exhibitors as a class continue to raise the question, “Is moviegoing dead?” This, as if the post-WWII threat of mass-market television had never gone away despite a sustained détente between the big auditorium screen and the smaller home-viewing screen.
Television and the movie business have long since forged an uneasy peace. But a long-term alliance between the moviemaking studios and the movie-showing theaters has eroded steadily since the cable-television and movies-on-video booms of the 1970s and ’80s. A movie that might play for a few weeks, with diminishing returns, in the theaters can count on an infinite afterlife on the cable networks or DVD/Blu-Ray/HD video.
The most striking new change in the theaters’ historic role may rest with one unconventional feature-length attraction of 2008: Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour. That digital 3-D musical event-film has grossed some $65 million since February in limited theatrical play (682 auditoriums, primarily in North America), impressing one industry analyst in Los Angeles, Jeff Bock, as “the sign of an overwhelming change in the film-exhibition industry.” Best of Both Worlds, built around a Disney Channel pop-country franchise aimed at a schoolgirl audience, represents a new breed of theatrical event-video programming – ranging from sports tournaments to opera to sensationalized 3-D adventure films. This development, in turn, represents the theaters’ gradually diminishing dependency upon the conventional feature-movie industry.
Such fresh outcroppings as Hannah Montana recall nothing so much as the big-screen rallying of the earlier 1950s. Without the “menace” of teevee as a provocation to the theaters, the moviegoing masses probably never would have seen such competitive big-screen spectacles as Merian C. Cooper’s something-for-everybody spectacle This Is Cinerama (1954), with its intense sight-and-sound imagery and its swooping aerial photography; or Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953-1954), with their in-your-face arrays of 3-D shock-value. (Between It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon, Arnold had addressed the encroachment of television upon Hollywood, with another 3-D-effects film called The Glass Web  – a murder yarn with a teevee-studio setting.)
Such timely and explicit responses to the movies-vs.-television rivalry are rare. The most emphatic of these, though hardly a competitive big-studio blockbuster in its day, is a 1953 film called The Twonky – in which movies-and-radio producer Arch Oboler condemns teevee as a mind-controlling medium.
And in 1951 – when such Hollywood cowboy-movie stars as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Bill “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd were moving away from film and into television in a self-preservation strategy – director Sam Newfield and prizefighter-turned-comedian Max Rosenbloom delivered a stinging parody of teevee-based Westerns with an outlandish big-screen picture called Skipalong Rosenbloom.
Neither Rosenbloom nor The Twonky caused much of a box-office sensation – much less, left their viewers with any anti-teevee leanings – and both titles wound up in short order as feed-the-monster fodder for late-show syndicated television. So there.
The renewed availability of Skipalong Rosenbloom (proxy title: Square Shooter) via the Web catalogue of www.lifeisamovie.com suggests a fresh appraisal. The upstart film (small studio, big snarky attitude) betrays more silliness than satire on the part of screenwriters Eddie Forman and Dean Riesner, but the depiction of television as a vehicle for pandering commercialism has a resentful edge. (Sam Newfield, a tenured mainstay of the low-budget Hollywood sector known as Poverty Row, would find himself sidetracked increasingly into television assignments during the 1950s.)
Its title’s suggestion of a Hopalong Cassidy spoof aside, Skipalong Rosenbloom runs short on lampooning references to Bill Boyd’s Cassidy franchise but compensates with slapstick re-enactments of such standard Western-movie devices as extravagant gunplay, haymaker fistfighting, and the shopworn crooked-banker plot. Max Rosenbloom (1904–1976) plays himself, more or less, as a teevee-Western hero at odds with a frontier mobster named Butcher Baer (heavyweight boxing champ Max Baer). A rubber-reality framing story concerns a household argument as to which television program wants watching – as though there were all that many channel choices in 1951.
Butcher Baer, upon learning that Skipalong Rosenbloom has been summoned to help his grandfather, Tex Rosenbloom (Raymond Hatton), avoid a mortgage foreclosure, sends a hireling known as Sneaky Pete (Fuzzy Knight) to ambush Rosenbloom. The genial hero dodges the pitfalls with more oafish dumb luck than skill. Arriving in the town of Buttonhole Bend, Rosenbloom dazzles the locals with a show of gunplay – shooting at a tossed coin and transforming it into a shower of small change. The bad guys’ truer objective proves to be a well-hidden map that might lead to a forgotten gold mine.
Rosenbloom accepts the job of sheriff – in a town where lawmen represent an endangered species. The purported map turns out to be a sheet of dance instructions. Rosenbloom, captured and placed near a lighted keg of explosives, proves allergic to gunpowder and blows out the fuse with a monumental sneeze. Triggering another explosion aimed at the Baer gang, Rosenbloom inadvertently reveals the location of the mine. The ordeal ends in capture for the surviving crooks and prosperity and happily-ever-after for all who deserve it. Except for Rosenbloom, who finds that loyal sidekick Jackie Coogan, assuming Skipalong dead in a shoot-out, has wooed and won Skipalong’s schoolmarm sweetheart (Jacqueline Fontaine). Rosenbloom resigns as sheriff and rides away in search of new adventures.
Eagle Lion Films, an ambitious but over-prolific independent studio descended from an old-line low-budget outfit called Producers Releasing Corp., found itself cash-strapped in 1951 and sold Skipalong Rosenbloom to a larger old-line releasing company, United Artists, which kept the film – barely – in small-market theatrical distribution before selling it to syndicated television. The change-of-title to the generic-sounding Square Shooter deprived the picture of a chief point of attraction, given the original title’s sideways reference to the household-name familiarity of the Hopalong Cassidy series.
The film plays inappropriately well on the small screen, given its origins as a snipe at teevee. For those postwar filmgoers old enough to have caught a theatrical showing, it must have been a hoot to watch Maxie Rosenbloom subject himself to such absurdities, like a Three-in-One Stooges act, on the big screen. (Rosenbloom had co-starred during the 1940s, with Billy Gilbert and founding Stooge Shemp Howard, in a brief run of imitation-Stooges features for producer Sam Katzman.)
And of course, the stuff of which Skipalong Rosenbloom is made is dreadful if one attempts to take it as anything more than slapstick. The film’s greater success lies in Rosenbloom’s smarter-than-the-character combination of innocence and indignation, and in the obvious delight that supporting players Jackie Coogan, Fuzzy Knight and Hillary Brooke (playing to exaggerated film, or femme, noir type as a villainous townswoman) take in the opportunity to spoof themselves.