The Southern Star (1969) ***

There’s a surprisingly good movie here once you strip out the cliché jungle stuff and the racist elements. The diamond of the title is actually a MacGuffin, just enough to get you started on two parallel tales of revenge.

George Segal is a mining engineer-cum-adventurer and Ursula Andress, daughter of mine owner Harry Andrews, as far from the traditional jungle heroine (except in one regard) as you could get. She saves him from crocodiles, rescues him from jail and quicksand, swims across a hippo-infested river and is a better shot than him (or anybody for that matter) with a rifle. This is female empowerment with a vengeance.

Suspected of stealing the diamond, he is hunted by ranger Ian Hendry, Segal’s love rival, who intends to win Ms Andress back using the simple expedient of killing the thief. Lying in wait is all-purpose rogue Orson Welles who seeks revenge on Hendry. The second unit had a whale of time filming anything that moved –  lions, leopards, zebras, giraffes, buffaloes, monkeys, antelopes, the aforementioned hippos and crocodiles and what looked like a cobra – and at one point everything does move in coordinated fashion if you can call a stampede coordinated.

But the main focus is an Ursula Andress who constantly confounds Segal’s sexist expectations. Docility is her disguise. Anytime she appears to be doing what she’s told you can be sure she’s planning the opposite. While Segal does have his own specific set of jungle skills, he often looks a fool. But they do make a good screen partnership and their dialogue is lively.

Hollywood spent millions of dollars trying to create screen chemistry between various stars and although it seemed to work very well in the industry’s golden age with Clark Gable and any number of MGM female stars, Bogart/Bacall and Tracy/Hepburn and I guess you could chuck John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara into that particular mix, the formula seemed to have gone awry by the 1960s discounting the Doris Day/Rock Hudson combo, big budget romances like El Cid (1961) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) and an occasional home run with whomever Cary Grant was romancing on screen. So it was usually hit-or-miss whether any sparks flew between the stars.

Andress had certainly been a European femme fatale par excellence as seen in Dr No (1962) and The Blue Max (1966), but it was certainly not a given that she would more than hold her own for an entire picture. Segal was nobody’s idea of a romantic leading man although the notion had been given a tryout in The Girl Who Couldn’t Say No (1968) with Virna Lisi. But here the whole enterprise works in an It Happened One Night vein with the supposedly superior male recognizing that perhaps his companion was more than a match.

Harry Andrews and Orson Welles both try to steal the picture, with polar opposite characterizations, Andrews loud and menacing, Welles soft and menacing. You can tell Scottish director Sidney Hayers (The Trap, 1966) was an editor because he cuts for impact and mostly does an efficient job of sticking to the story. Supposedly, Orson Welles directed his own scenes, but that might be to make sure he got to hog the camera. He has enough choice lines and bits of business to keep him happy and gives his venomous character a camp edge.

The casual, incipient, racism is harder to ignore. It is both verbal and physical with Johnny Sekka, Segal’s buddy, who actually has the diamond, bearing the brunt and being brutally whipped.

Despite my reservations, this is well constructed and keeps one step ahead of audience expectation with plenty twists to subvert those, although the music by Johnny Dankworth gets in the way, offering musical cues opposite to what is required.

As it is a jungle picture there is the obligatory heroine’s bathing scene – and to balance the books on that score Segal does whip off his shirt at one point. Except for the clichés, it would have gone higher in my estimation for by and large it is well done and Andress is once again (see The Blue Max) a revelation.   

Nun but the Brave

Setting aside its impact on popular culture and the Austrian tourist industry, The Sound of Music was also responsible for bringing nuns – an admittedly small sub-genre – back into fashion.

Of course, there had been some big hitters getting into the box office habit in the past, most notably The Bells of St Mary’s (1945) with Ingrid Bergman, Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus (1947), Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949), Kerr again in a rather more resourceful mode opposite Robert Mitchum in war drama Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1957) and Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story (1958). All four actresses (Kerr in the second outing) were Oscar-nominated. But none of the films ushered in a rush of wannabes.

The Sound of Music was viewed as directly responsible for putting nine projects on the starting grid. Leading the charge was Debbie Reynolds as The Singing Nun (1966), MGM’s biopic of the Belgian sister Dominique whose records topped the charts. Columbia chipped in with The Trouble with Angels (1966), directed by Ida Lupino and headlining Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills, which spawned a sequel also with Russell Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968).

Both were neck-and-neck at the Easter 1966 box office, The Singing Nun having the edge in New York since it opened at the 6,200-seat Radio City Music Hall, where it set a new seasonal record, but the Russell-Mills vehicle more than matched it in other cities.

Nuns also featured in Billy Wilder comedy The Fortune Cookie (1966) with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Italian comedy The Little Nuns starring Catherine Spaak also benefitted from the upsurge of interest in nuns, earning a late November 1965 release when it was already two years old.

Also in the pipeline producer Ross Hunter was prepping The Heaven Train for Universal from a screenplay by James Lee Barrett (Shenandoah, 1965). Carlo Ponti had wife Sophia Loren in mind to star in Mother Cabrini, about the first American saint. Rhonda Fleming had been announced as the female lead for The Nuns in the Sports Car, an independent film to be made in Paris.

On the foreign horizon was French director Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse (1966) – released in the United states as The Nun – starring Anna Karina. Luis Bunuel, who had already ventured into this territory with Viridiana (1961), was developing a Mexican picture also to be called The Nun. But La Religieuse hit censor trouble in France where it was initially banned but eventually set the box office wheels spinning at home and in the United States.

While Sally Fields in television’s The Flying Nun (1968) and the Russell Angels sequel kept the pot boiling, producers continued showing interest in films featuring nuns later in the decade. Two Mules for Sister Sara – written by Budd Boetticher and originally slated to be directed by him – was greenlit by Universal in 1967 although not hitting screen until three years later. Mary Tyler Moore played a nun opposite Elvis Presley in Change of Habit (1969) and Robert H. Solo signed a deal in 1969 to make The Devils for United Artists, although, that, too would take a couple of years to surface.

Note: not all these films finally saw the light of day – those with no year specified mentioned ended up shelved.

SOURCES: “Nuns Back In Film Fashion,” Variety, Dec 8, 1965, p11; “Films Sister Act: Or Nun-Such B.O,” Variety, Apr 20, 1966, 22; “Nun Might Go to Cannes,” Variety, Apr 20, 1966, 20;  “Beauregard’s Nun Gets Box Office Religion,” Variety, Sep 27, 1967, 18;  “Prostitute Pose: Nun Was Boetticher Screenplay and Now Universal,” Variety, Oct 4, 1967, 1; “Bob Solo’s 3 for UA,” Variety, Aug 20, 1969, 5.

Genghis Khan (1965) ****

Hollywood was never reined in by the strictures of history, much preferring fiction to fact for dramatic effect, and that’s largely the case here, although the titular hero’s real life remains shrouded in myth.

If you do catch this surprisingly good feature, make sure it’s not one of the many pan-and-scan atrocities on the market. I watched this in the proper Panavision ratio which meant it occupied only one-third of my television screen, but in that format it’s terrific. It’s a bit of an anomaly for a decade that churned out high-class historical epics like El Cid (1961) because this clocks in about a hour short of other films in the genre and there’s no star actor or director to speak of and no Yakima Canutt to handle the second unit action scenes.

Omar Sharif’s marquee value at this point was so low that if you check out any of the original posters you’ll note that his name hardly rates a mention and he also comes at the very end of the opening screen credits. Although this is post-Lawrence of Arabia (1962), it’s pre-Doctor Zhivago (1965), suggesting nobody had a clue how to market his talents.

Director Henry Levin was a journeyman, fifty films under his belt, best known for not a great deal except for, following this, the second and third in the Matt Helm spy series. Given this film was critically ignored on release and since, and a flop to boot, it definitely falls into the “Worth a Look” category. Although there are few stand-out scenes of the artistic variety such as pepper Lawrence of Arabia or El Cid, this is still well put together and Levin shows an aptitude for the widescreen.

The narrative breaks down into three parts – the first section describing Sharif’s enslavement by nemesis Stephen Boyd (the picture’s star according to poster and screen credits) before banding together rival tribes in revolt, the second part a long trek to China, and the third encompassing a final battle and hand-to-hand combat with Boyd. For a two-hour picture it has tremendous sweep, not just the scenery and the battle scenes, but political intrigue, romance, a rape scene and even clever comedy. Sharif is excellent as a leader who believes his glory is predestined, but who has very modern ideas about the role of women.

The best section, oddly enough, is set in China where Sharif engages in a duel of wits with Robert Morley’s distinctively contradictory emperor, but that’s not to detract from the film’s other qualities, the action brilliantly handled, especially the chaos of battle, the romance touching, and the dialogue intelligent and often epigrammatic. Unlike James Mason who makes a calamitous attempt at a Chinese accent, Morley, costume apart, looks as if he has just walked out of an English country house, but his plummy tones belie a very believable character. Telly Savalas and Woody Strode have decent parts as Sharif’s sidekicks, the former unexpectedly bearing the brunt of the film’s comedy. French actress Francoise Dorleac is effective as Sharif’s wife.

Hitchcock stole one of his most famous ideas from Genghis Khan. About the only scene in Torn Curtain (1966) to receive universal praise was a killing carried out to a soundtrack of nothing more than the grunts of assailant and victim. But, here, where the score by Yugoslavian composer Dusan Radic was extensively employed, the rape scene is silent and just as stunning. If the only prints widely available are of the pan-and-scan variety I’m not surprised the film has been for so long overlooked, but if you can get hold of one in the preferred format you will be in for a surprise.      

In the News – August 1960

CLEOPATRA VERSION ONE

Producer Walter Wanger headed for Britain to oversee the start of production for Twentieth Century Fox’s Cleopatra. Before the movie was bogged down in illness and budget scandals, Elizabeth Taylor’s co-stars in this initial version were Stephen Boyd, fresh from Ben-Hur, and Peter Finch.  Wanger was mulling over taking the production to Egypt where he also intended to film the adaptation of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine. Rouben Mamoulian was the director of Cleopatra. Durrell had written the screenplay for this version. Fox was promising the movie would be on screens in June 1961. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, at this point down as writer of Justine, would later end up in charge of Cleopatra version two with Richard Burton and Rex Harrison replacing Boyd and Finch.

HITCHCOCK FESTIVAL

Although Alfred Hitchcock Festivals would become one of the major reissue talking points of the 1980s and while Rebecca (1940) had been successfully revived in the 1950s, the director’s first major commercial – as opposed to arthouse – retrospective was in the planning stage courtesy of David O. Selznick. He had in mind a rotating double bill based around three features to which he owned the rights – Spellbound (1945) with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, Notorious (1946) with Bergman and Cary Grant and The Paradine Case (1947) with Peck and Ann Todd. The project would be marketed as an “Alfred Hitchcock Festival.” Interest in the director was at all-time high after the double whammy of the previous year’s North by Northwest and current box office sensation Psycho. The fact that all three movies had already been shown on television was not seen as a deterrent. Selznick aimed to use as a promotional tool that moviegoers could see the pictures without irritating commercial breaks and on a much larger screen than television would afford.

IN THE PIPELINE

Montezuma was scheduled as Kirk Douglas’s follow-up to Spartacus with a budget in excess of the $12 million spent on the slave revolt epic. John Huston would pen the script and director. Douglas would play Cortez with Marlon Brando being wooed for the title role… Darryl F. Zanuck was setting up The Day Christ Died based on the Jim bishop bestseller in competition to George Stevens’ planned The Greatest Story Ever Told… Steve McQueen was planning to make The Captain under his own production company with Henry Fonda and Ernest Borgnine playing major parts… In fact, only The Day Christ Died ever saw light of day and  then only as a television film in 1980.  

IN OTHER NEWS

Critic Bosley Crowther declared war on subtitles, an unusual move for a writer long considered a purist where foreign movies were concerned…Pope John XXIII ordered a permanent projection room with air conditioning to be installed in the Vatican on the third floor of the Apostolic Palace because he liked movies more than his predecessor…La Dolce Vita was the top grossing film of the 1959-1960 Italian season with $1.125 million, well ahead of the closest runner-up Some Like it Hot with $725,000…Universal ordered a record fifty 70mm prints for SpartacusCharlton Heston was announced as El Cid for the forthcoming Samuel Bronston production…John Wayne held a sneak preview of The Alamo at the 900-seat Aladdin theater in Denver on August 5 with Can-Can kicked off the screen for the night…U.S. movie receipts were up for the first time in five years with the week of July 30 1960  the best since August 4 1956…In Britain, Hercules broke records in 36 of the 39 cinemas in its initial playoff.

SOURCES: “Wanger to Britain as Cleopatra and Justine Both May Shoot in Egypt,” Variety, Aug 3, 1960, p3; “Selznick Plotting Hitchcock Festival,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 7; “Kirk Douglas Outlines Plans for Mexican Biopic on Montezuma’s Life,” Variety, Aug 3, 1960, 4; “Zanuck Signs Gallico to Write The Day Christ Died,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 10; “Reisner-McQueen- Elkins Co-produce Captain,” Variety, Aug 17, 1960, 4; “Crowther’s Subtitles Must Go Stirs Trades, Uh-Huh but on the Other hand,” Variety, Aug 17, 1960, 4; “Vatican Getting Its Own Projection Room,” Variety, Aug 13, 1960, 13; “Italo Film in sharp Upbeat at ’59-’60 B.O.,” Variety, Aug 24, 1960, 11; “UI’s Big 70M Print Order for Spartacus,” Variety, Aug 24, 1960, 13; advertisement, El Cid, Variety, Aug 3, 1960, 16; “Wayne Sneaks Alamo,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 5; “Pictures $82,831,000 Take for Week Jul 30 Best Since Aug 4 1956,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 3; “Hercules Sets 36 New House Records out of 39 Spots in England,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 10.

Point Blank (1967)****

The Man With Half A Name doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as The Man With No Name. Lee Marvin’s professional thief Walker (first name absent) is a close cousin of the spaghetti western’s amoral gunslinger. But where Leone is disinclined to fill in the emotional blanks in his anti-hero’s story, British director John Boorman, making his Hollywood debut, feels obliged to look for redemptive features in keeping with American tradition.

Along with several unnecessary arty elements, that gets in the way of a brilliant character portrait. The movie also suffers from critical assessment, not in the manner of bad reviews, but from an irrelevant and misleading insistence on discovering  the film’s “true meaning.”

However, where Boorman gets it right, the movie is a cracker. The bursts of brutal explosive violence still shock, Walker a force as unstoppable as The Terminator, while representing the Mafia as a faceless corporation is a stunning concept. Walker refuses to recognize the dictum that there is no honor among thieves and expects repaid the money stolen from him by a Mafia henchman. In his mind payment will come either in cash or retribution. There is double-crossing aplenty, but Walker is ready for it.

Boorman’s palette is fascinating, the grey bleakness of early scenes giving way to yellow (even the pillar in a parking garage is painted yellow) and other colors. And he has learned from Hitchcock how to apply silence and use natural sound effects like footsteps.

But there are some changes to Richard Stark’s original novel that the movie can do without. The introduction of the abandoned Alcatraz, for a start, is an illogical nonsense, cinematically stylistic though it is. Walker, as shown in the original novel is far too clever to allow himself to be led to a place so open to ambush. Nor would he allow himself to be emotionally blackmailed into doing the job that caused the trouble; he would have walked away from someone as unstable as the double-crossing Mal Reese (John Vernon).

The ambiguous ending, where Walker appears to fade away, issues unresolved, also attracted odd critical theories when, having spent ninety minutes demonstrating the gangster’s destructive capacity, it seems more likely to me that the two Mafia gents left alone with him on Alcatraz would be in the greater peril.

That said, the rest of the picture has an inbuilt dynamic and Marvin’s laconic menacing performance is mesmeric. By comparison Major Reisman in The Dirty Dozen was garrulous. The original novel was called The Hunter and Walker ruthlessly stalks his prey even though they are some of the most dangerous men alive. Angie Dickinson is dropped in to provide some emotional core and a scene of him as a younger man courting his wife is along the same lines. Ignore the arthouse elements and run a mile from critical theories and you are in for one hell of a ride.    

The “Psycho” Revolution

It wasn’t just that Alfred Hitchcock broke all the rules in Psycho, turning horror on its head with the shower scene, introducing themes like mother-fixation and cross-dressing and delivering the first bona fide serial killer to American audiences.

He also took on the exhibition business by insisting that nobody was allowed into theaters after the film had started.

This went completely against the way films were normally shown. Patrons were accustomed to entering a movie theater whenever they liked, be it beginning, middle or end and then staying on till they came to the section they had seen before. Hitchcock was effectively calling an end to this practice.

Exhibitors were so used to customers going to the movies as a matter of course, as a regular habit, that few cinemas outside of arthouses and those in city centers even bothered to list start times. Although tacitly endorsed by exhibitors, this system was a menace to business since there was no way of knowing how many people were likely to vacate their seats at any given time and the fact that they did so intermittently interrupted the viewing of those still watching the picture.

Exhibitors were already investigating new methods of keeping their customers, including setting up their own production companies and buying up old films to present as reissues to make up for the shortage of new movies.

The Psycho “see it from the beginning” gimmick was initially viewed as exactly that – a gimmick. But when customers obliged without any particular fuss, standing patiently in line in the lobby or outside while one show vacated, this seemed to many indicative of a change in audience perspective. Many exhibitors wanted to take advantage of the potential to change moviegoing habits.  

“A new concept in motion picture promotion – building appreciation of the merchandise by customers – is being undertaken by segments of the industry,” said Hy Hollinger in Variety. “The idea involves a revolutionary change in the presentation of films in theaters with the industry engaging in a vast educational campaign to indoctrinate the public.”

“The public must be taught to accept starting times,” became a mantra. A more orderly approach would lead to greater appreciation of the films being screened. For once, America wanted to follow the Europe. A system of fixed schedules operated in Europe.

There were already “significant signs that the public prefer to see pictures from the beginning.” Exhibitors had registered more telephone calls asking about start times and more tickets were being sold just prior to the film beginning.

The Psycho sensation had kicked off another experiment. The film was being shown in New York nabes concurrent with its ninth week in first run at the DeMille and Baronet theaters in Manhattan. Usually, films were clear of first run commitments before launching on the circuits.   

And there were yet other changes afoot. Two circuits in New York – Loews and Century – had shifted back the start time of the main feature from 10pm by an hour or more, in the case of Century to a fixed 8.40pm which allowed moviegoers to get home in time for the eleven o’clock news. New York also led the way in combining first run in big Broadway houses with a concurrent booking in an eastside arthouse – Sons and Lovers (the only genuine arthouse offering), Psycho and Portrait in Black among those benefitting from the practice.

In addition, Psycho was considered responsible for another psychological phenomenon. It was asserted by Paramount publicists that the long lines of people standing outside the theater waiting to see the film “plants in people who had no desire to see the picture the seeds of desire to do so.”

Eroding the double bill mentality was also seen as a way of setting a more rigid approach of start times. The double bill was already under pressure because the number of movies being made was much lower than a decade before. Some theaters had taken to augmenting a single bill with a 30-minute short rather than a full feature.

Arthouse audiences had already accepted that the price of their ticket entitled them to only one movie, not two. Single bills allowed a theater more showings during the day, thus increasing potential receipts. When Psycho went into the circuits it was as a single bill with five or six showings scheduled.  

The roadshow was still in its infancy, Ben-Hur and a handful of other films leading the way, although spectacles like Spartacus, Exodus and The Alamo were on the horizon. Roadshows were presented as separate performances so no waste of seating capacity.

Roadshows and a film like Psycho had something else in common that augured well for a future where “grind” was eliminated. People accepted separate performances for roadshow or an uncommonly attractive feature like Psycho because they wanted specifically to see those particular pictures, not because they routinely went to the movies with little regard for what was actually being shown.

In just 38 weeks in a limited number of theaters presenting the picture in a limited number of showings at a set start time, Ben-Hur had already taking $7 million at the box office.  At Loew’s State in New York it had rolled up $1.2 million, in Los Angeles crossed the million-dollar mark and close to that figure in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Psycho was on the way to being one of the biggest grossers of the year.

With Hollywood still battling the encroaching threat of television, and television beginning to snare the first tranche of 1950s movies, it appeared that exhibitors had found a way of guaranteeing survival. But whether these new ideas would be sustained was another story.

SOURCES: Hy Hallinger, “1960 Reasoning: Teach Appreciation, Prepare Public for Single Feature European-Style Fixed Schedules,” Variety, Aug 3, 1960, p3; Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere, A History of the Hollywood Wide Release 1913-2017 (McFarland, 2019), 117-134; “May Shift Main Feature Hour,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 13; “Gotham Playoff Revolution,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 13; “Re Broadway & Eastside Day-Dating,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 13; “Is a Queue Itself Best Form of Sell?,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 13.  

Blow-Up (1966)***

Movies can break all sorts of rules but they can’t cheat.

A film has to stick to an internal logic. For example, it can’t portray a photographer so obsessed with his calling that he even takes a camera with him to an antique shop and starts shooting off roll and after roll capturing the area’s rundown streets but then the one time he really could do with a camera – to prove there is a corpse at his feet – he is somewhat remiss. Especially when the movie turns on that plot point.

Setting aside what’s a somewhat contrived snapshot of “Swinging London” there’s a lot to admire here. The absence of music for one thing. Most of the movie runs without musical accompaniment, a bold move since so often we rely on the soundtrack to provide guidance for a scene or an overlay for the entire film. Here, Antonioni makes us falls back on our own interpretation.

David Hemmings, all mop-top and intense stare, is a high-flying high-living fashion photographer in the David Bailey mold (casual sex with wannabe models a perk) who turns investigator on being confronted in a park by Vanessa Redgrave after taking snaps she wants back. Tension is sustained by her sudden appearance at his studio, willing to pay with her body for the return of the photos, and then by Hemmings’ careful, photo-by-photo blow-up-by-blow-up analysis that slowly comes closer to the truth.

Everything in his world is judged through a lens, as if he can capture elusive truths, and he has aspirations to being more than a mere fashion adjunct, having spent time taking portraits of down-and-outs. He judges Redgrave as he would a model, she has a good stance and sitting posture. Even by the standards of the permissive society, he is a bit of sexual predator, taking advantage of two giggly model wannabes.

But the photography scenes are well done and Antonioni captures the intimacy between model and photographer that create the best images. If you can get past the cheat and the deliberate obtuseness this creates – and the tsunami of artistic interpretations it inspired about the director’s intent – then it remains intriguing.

This isn’t Hemmings’ greatest work – Fragment of Fear is much better – but it certainly provided him with a marketable movie persona. Redgrave is excellent as the nervy woman willing to do what is required and the movie might have worked better had she had been allocated more screen time and their duel had continued through other scenes. But then that would have been Hitchcock and not Antonioni.   I’d have given it a higher score except for the cheat.

Hollywood vs. The Law

A week or so back a momentous decision probably passed you by. The United States Government repealed the Paramount Consent Decree of 1948. That was the law that forced studios to shed their chains of theaters. The unforeseen result was that it ended the studio system on which Hollywood had based its operational model, threw thousands of actors and hundreds of directors out of work and put the business in financial jeopardy for over a decade. Why it took so long for the Government to change its mind is anybody’s guess.  

By the 1960s it was clear the Government’s action had been, to say the least, misguided. Without the guaranteed profits from exhibition, Hollywood could not afford to make so many pictures. And with no financial interest in exhibition, studios no longer felt any obligation to provide picture houses with the three or four hundred a year that some required to survive.

It only took 15 years for legal minds to consider a rethink. When, in 1963, the second largest theater chain in the country –  National General – decided to take a stab at making movies, it was granted a three-year window to do so. National General, which had bought up half the Twentieth Century Fox circuit in 1951 and now also owned real estate and supplied equipment for concerts, set up Carthay Center Productions with a four-picture slate including Divorce American-Style.

The only people who objected to this development were the studios. The exhibitors who had been the driving force to get the Paramount Decree over the line welcomed the move. And for a simple reason – the collapse of the old Hollywood system had seen a substantial drop in output. There were not enough pictures to go round. Worse, the shortage meant the movies that were being made took much longer to reach the hinterlands. Big city center theaters held on to movies for far longer than when there had been more pictures to choose from. The arrival of roadshow had exacerbated the problem, tying up the biggest cinemas for months at a time thus preventing ordinary films from being released.

Prior to National General, there had been a few low-budget or regional attempts by cinema owners to enter production business, but not at a sufficient level to alarm Government. Howco, which owned 60 theaters, made a small number of B-films like Jail Bait (1954) and Girl with an Itch (1958). McLendon Theaters, which also owned a radio station, made the low-budget The Killer Shrews (1959 and My Dog Buddy (1960) mainly as a filler for its own cinemas.  

It took more than three years for National General to get its act together and required a further three-year waiver, granted in 1966, going on to fund Divorce American-Style (1967) and Gregory Peck western The Stalking Moon (1968) among others.  CBS Television entered the production arena with Cinema Center and carved out a deal with NGC that greenlit  John Wayne in Rio Lobo (1970) and Big Jake (1971), Lee Marvin in  Monte Walsh (1970), Pocket Money (1972) and Prime Cut (1972), and Steve McQueen in The Reivers (1969), Le Mans (1971) and Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972).

Meanwhile, American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres, the largest circuit in America, had  already bypassed the strictures of the decree with a quartet of low budget films such as The Beginning of the End (1957) and Eighteen and Anxious (1958) before setting up the more ambitious ABC Pictures in 1965, its first production Good Times (1967) followed by pictures as diverse as Charly (1968), The Straw Dogs (1971), Robert Aldrich’s The Grissom Gang (1971), historical epic The Last Valley (1971), Ingmar Bergman drama The Touch (1971) and Oscar-winning musical Cabaret (1972). ABC also owned Palomar which made The Killing of Sister George (1968), Shalako (1968), and The Stepford Wives (1975).

The 1948 Decree, the result of embittered exhibitors egging on ambitious politicians, was probably the craziest decision the Government made in over 30 years of interference in the movie business. The first bit of interference was theoretically justified – the antitrust action of 1914. But the background to this was at the very least murky. The companies that actually invented the film and equipment from cameras to projectors realized a) that their patents could easily be pirated and b) that they could potentially be excluded from the massive revenues their ideas had created. As the business swiftly changed more money was being from exhibition than production.

Initially, movies were shown in peepshows in America, individual booths where the customer inserted a coin and saw flickering images for a few minutes. The booth owner would buy the movie outright. But then they came to realize that once interest in that particular movie had died away they would be left with a dud. So someone came up with the idea of renting movies rather than selling them outright. This was, in effect, a film library. These were called exchanges. The theater owner would rent a movie one week and take it back the next and pay far less than it cost to purchase a movie outright.

A group of manufacturers – known as the General Film Company – created a consortium and set about buying up all the exchanges. This would have resulted in a monopoly of distribution. And if the distributors were also the producers then they could guarantee that exchanges gave priority to the movies their companies. 

One exchange owner challenged this in court. And won. That was the first anti-trust action against the industry and technically not against the Hollywood arm of film-making since Hollywood had not been invented at that point with most movies being made around New York.

Then, in sweet irony, exchange owners and exhibitors worked out that the GFC was right – you had to control all aspects of the business. Vertical integration became the basis of the Hollywood system. Studios made movies, distributed the movies through their own exchanges and owned chains of cinemas. In the 1920s a lot more money was made from exhibition than production, in part because rental percentages were heavily weighted in favor of the exhibitor.

No studio actually had a nationwide chain, they tended to be strong in a region, and the number of cinemas they owned was far from being monopolistic but in general they were in charge of operations in the centers of big cities rather than mom-and-pop picture houses in the hinterlands.

But independent exhibitors didn’t think this was fair and towards the end of the 1920s began to harass their local political representative to change what was known as “block booking.” This was where a cinema signed up with one studio for its entire annual output of 50 or 60 films, sight unseen. Exhibitors complained they had no idea what they were going to get. The contract they signed might simply point to three films with Joan Crawford, two from Greta Garbo and so on. Exhibitors conveniently ignored the fact that it was impossible for a studio tasked with making so many pictures to plan so far ahead. Studios would have to be working or two or three sets of 50-60 movies every year just to meet exhibitor demand.

Generally, however, Hollywood with its free-wheeling attitudes tended to mightily annoy politicians. Producers had become too casual in attitudes to morality. In the 1920s, there were hundreds of censorship bills being lined up to go through legislators while in towns and cities movies could be banned for a variety of reasons. Largely to the save money from defending itself against proposed bills and local censorship, Hollywood decided to go down the self-regulation route. An independent censorship body known as the Production Code was established in 1930.

Hollywood wealth also aggravated the government. Top stars could earn $300,000 a year at a  time when millions were unemployed – amounting to 18 per cent of the working population in 1930 – and the average annual salary was $1,368. So in 1934 hoping to shame the industry to reducing salaries the Government forced studios to reveal the actual earnings of every star. It  hoped  a public backlash would produce a boycott that would make the industry see sense. However, although the bill afforded those inclined to demonstrate moral superiority the opportunity for outrage, the public did not take against the movie industry. (You can find out more about this in my book When Women Ruled Hollywood.)

But the Government plowed ahead in its intent of bringing the industry to heel. This time politicians returned to the original source of contention – block booking. And in 1939  Government legislation prevented companies forcing exhibitors to sign contracts for a year’s supply of movies sight unseen.

There were two major outcomes of the new law. Firstly, movies could not be released until seen by exhibitors. That resulted in studios at great expense setting up trade shows in cities all over America. While theoretically this was a good idea since now exhibitors would know what they were getting, in reality it was plainly preposterous. If an average movie house changed programs twice a week and showed double bills as was the norm then they would have to allocate around six hours a week, plus travelling time, to attend the trade shows. More time, in fact, because the studios did not run a stack of films back-to-back in a tidy preview; rather previewing one film at a time.

The second rule, to prevent studios lumping a heap of bad movies in with a smaller number of good ones was to limit the maximum number of films that could be sold in a block to five. The assumption was that in order to attract interest each block would have to contain one or two good pictures. And that a studio’s biggest-budgeted pictures would be included in such blocks.

But the legislators had left a couple of loopholes, so it didn’t go the way they expected. In the first place, there was nothing to prevent a studio putting one picture in its own block. That meant studios could protect their biggest productions, forcing exhibitors to pay far more for them from the outset than before. The second, and more serious point, was that the need to trade-show created a supply drought and studios showed no signs of speeding up the supply chain since in effect they had to make two years’ worth of movies in one year.

So they held back movies until they felt any batch had realized its potential. By the mid-1940s each studio was sitting on a back catalog of about 20-30 movies. To fill the gap, studios took to reviving old films, but charging top dollar for them. Whenever it looked like exhibitors were opting for cheaper older films rather than more expensive films, the studios simply cut off the supply of reissues.

Studios and cinemas faced a multiplicity of problems during the war, from the Government limiting the amount of raw stock to make prints to enforcing blackouts on front-of-house marquees , but even so there was full employment and theaters had to remain open for longer periods in order to cope with demand.

The fact that studios had taken everything the government could throw at them and still came up smiling enraged the powers-that-be. Now exhibitors were agitating for greater freedom to show films i.e not be told when they could and could not show a film and not have to wait a specified period of time as a movie shuttled down the food chain. Lawsuits were piling up. The studios had operated a self-regulating arbitration system since the 1920s, often paying out millions of dollars in reparation to hard-done-by exhibitors, but that system was rapidly descending into chaos.

Studios just had too much power, as far as the Government was concerned, and would have to choose between making movies and showing them. That resulted in the 1948 Decree. Interestingly, the exhibitors were not all pro-change. Some foresaw the potential devastation that lay ahead and complained that this was the kind of victory that put exhibitors out of business.  The decree had been intended to create equality of opportunity, but it had the opposite effect as exhibitors battled with each other to obtain product from a steadily-diminishing supply. Most exhibitors came off worse as a result of a change in the law that they had instigated.

Getting rid of the law entirely now will open the doors for the likes of Netflix and Amazon to move big time into cinema ownership. This will help them fight any plans by the Oscar ruling class to stop their films being considered for these valuable statuettes. But it might also strengthen the potential for films initially intended for streaming to be given a longer or simultaneous run in theaters. At some point Netflix, which has been built entirely on debt, will see the value of a billion-dollar hit and what it can add to the bottom line while still benefiting from getting first bite at streaming. Most films made for streaming drop into the made-for-television feature film category that has been around since the 1960s. The Killers (1964) with Lee Marvin, for example, was shown first in cinemas though originally made for television. But just as television companies found then, the public just does not want to stay at home all the time watching the small screen, even when the movies have decent stars, and hopefully a similar sort of sanity will prevail today.

The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) ***

I’ve never gone out of my way to watch a Doris Day picture with the exception of musical Calamity Jane (1953) when it became a camp classic as well as Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and films where she happened to be co-starring with Cary Grant.

So I came to The Glass Bottom Boat with low expectations, especially as this was towards the end of her two-decade career and co-star Rod Taylor was a different level of star to Grant and Rock Hudson. By now, she had dropped the musical and dramatic string to her bow and concentrated on churning out romantic comedies and also been supplanted by Julie Andrews as Hollywood’s favourite cute star.

But on the evidence here I can certainly see her attraction. This is entertaining enough. And she sings – the theme song, one other and a riff on one of her most famous tunes “Que Sera Sera.” Unless there’s a symbolism I’ve missed, the title is misleading since the boat only appears in the opening section to perform the obligatory meet-cute with Taylor as a fishermen hooking Day’s mermaid costume.

The plot is on the preposterous side, Day suspected as a spy infiltrating Taylor’s aerospace research operation. It’s partly a James Bond spoof – when her dog is called Vladimir you can see where the movie is headed – with all sorts of crazy gadgets. But mostly the plot serves to illustrate Day’s substantial gifts as a comedienne. For an actress at the top of her game, she is never worried about looking foolish.

And that’s part of her appeal. She may look sophisticated even when, as here, playing an ordinary public relations girl, but turns clumsy and uncoordinated at the first scent of comedic opportunity. There’s some decent slapstick and pratfalls and some pretty good visual gags especially the one involving a soda water siphon. A chase scene is particularly inventive and there’s a runaway boat that pays dividends. But there are a couple of effective dramatic moments too, emotional beats, when the romance untangles.

She’s in safe hands, director Frank Tashlin responsible for Son of Paleface (1952) and The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). I also felt Taylor was both under-rated and under-used, never given much to do onscreen except stick out a chiseled jaw and turn on the charm. Although he had been Day’s sparring partner in her previous picture Do Not Disturb (1965) he’s not in the Cary Grant-Rock Hudson league.

It’s also worth remembering that the actress had her own production company, Arwin, which put together over a dozen of her pictures, including this one, so she would be playing to her strengths rather than those of her co-star. On the bonus side, watch out for a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo by Robert Vaughn (The Man from Uncle), a featured role by Dom DeLuise as a bumbling spy and, in a bit part as a neighbour, silent screen comedienne Mabel Normand.    

  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Glass-Bottom-Boat-Doris-Day/dp/B089Q38254/ref=sr_1_2?crid=33N53Z2O4WYJB&dchild=1&keywords=the+glass+bottom+boat+dvd&qid=1595511843&s=dvd&sprefix=the+glass+bottom%2Caps%2C146&sr=1-2

The Greatest Movie Never Made

Forty Days at Musa Dagh was a strong contender by the end of the 1960s for The Greatest Movie Never Made. By then an eye-watering one million bucks had been spent without a foot of film being shot.

I came across it while writing my book about “The Making of The Guns of Navarone.” That  film’s producer Carl Foreman was slated in the early 1960s to write what I soon discovered was a legendary lost project. It was subsequently fated to become the most high-profile casualty of MGM’s financial problems at the end of that decade.

Forty Days of Musa Dagh was based on the debut novel written in German by Prague-born poet Franz Werfel (who later wrote The Song of Bernadette filmed in 1942). It concerned the infamous Armenian genocide carried out by the Turks in World War One.

The novel had such advance buzz that news of its imminent publication in Germany in 1933 quickly crossed the Atlantic. After studio representatives read the book in the original German, MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg bought the rights in 1934, prior to its American publication, for $35,000 (equivalent to $650,000 now).

Thalberg promised “one of the most staggering  production undertakings of all motion picture history.” With Clark Gable and William Powell heading the cast (there would be 63 roles) and director William Wellman (Call of the Wild, 1935) assigned a million-dollar budget, an enormous amount for the time, and with screenwriter Talbot Jennings (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935) on board, Thalberg was intent on delivering a prestige product. In publicity material, MGM boasted: “What a picture it will make.” 

The novel was a huge success with 170,000 copies sold in hardback even though, priced at $3, it was 50 cents or a dollar more expensive than other bestsellers. It was simultaneously snapped up by the Book of the Month Club and the Catholic Book club and only kept off the top of the bestseller lists by James Hilton’s Lost Horizon.

However, publication was shrouded in controversy. It was banned in Germany shortly after publication. In America, publisher Viking and the author faced a $200,000 libel lawsuit brought by Harutian Nokhudian and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1936 – where it was dismissed. But that was only the beginning of its troubles.

Thalberg had not counted on opposition from Turkey. Or if such a possibility had been considered, it had been dismissed since that country was not a profitable outlet for Hollywood product. However, Turkey had very strong trading relationships and threatened to instigate a ban on all MGM releases in these European countries as well as the entire Muslim world, an action which if successful would put a huge hole in the studio’s foreign receipts.

For the first time studios “had begun to pay attention to foreign repercussions” after Paramount had been forced to withdraw from Spain and many other markets the final Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich collaboration The Devil Is A Woman  (1935) when that movie ruffled the feathers of foreign powers. Unwilling to go ahead with a picture that might cost them heavily at the foreign box office, Thalberg shelved the movie (along with two others).

The idea remained dormant for 15 years until revived by independent producer Walter Wanger (Joan of Arc, 1948) who had originally competed with MGM for the rights and had Paramount waiting in the wings to provide backing should the Thalberg deal fall through. But even a seasoned a producer such as Wanger had no more success in placing it on the launch pad and it struggled along in development hell for another decade until, out of the blue, in 1961 MGM hooked writer-director Carl Foreman.

This was a considerable surprise because Foreman had an exclusive and lucrative deal with Columbia (they split profits on his films down the middle) but as he was coming off that studio’s most successful picture of all time The Guns of Navarone (1961) with a high-octane cast of Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn the studio cut him some slack.

Foreman did not come cheap. In addition to his $27,500 fee for writing the script, Foreman was entitled to 2.5 per cent of the gross after MGM had taken in twice the negative cost. After an arduous four-year slog delivering The Guns of Navarone, Foreman described his new venture as “a bit of a rest” which seemed an odd choice of phrase given that MGM was under pressure to greenlight the picture in 1962. 

It was firmly in MGM’s production sights for most of the 1960s. In 1963 it was seen as one of the studio’s biggest upcoming projects along with Doctor Zhivago, the adaptation of James Michener’s Caravans and musical Say It with Music. By the following year it had been allocated a $7.5 million budget – the same as Zhivago – and was on course to be made in Greece in the spring of that year.

By 1965 it landed in the lap of Oscar-nominated British director Guy Green who had nurtured the $1.2 million A Patch of Blue (1965) starring Sidney Poitier into a substantial hit. Although the budget had by now dropped to $5 million it had attracted Omar Sharif, one of four big stars set. There was a new script by Scottish Oscar-winner Neil Paterson (Room at the Top, 1959) and best of all there was a top-flight producer in Pandro S. Berman (Father of the Bride, 1950)  with over two decades experience at MGM. Filming, however, though still in Greece, had been pushed back to 1966.

Although Guy Green appeared to have the most solid lock on the project, other names associated with the movie included producer Carlo Ponti (Doctor Zhivago, 1965) and directors William Wyler (Ben Hur, 1959),  Henri Verneuil  (The 25th Hour, 1967) and Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, 1954), the last two both born in the former Ottoman Empire now known as Turkey.

It was listed as being on the MGM production schedules for every year till the end of the decade with names like Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston bandied about until it joined a massive bonfire of other expensive projects. By the end of the decade it had racked up over a million dollars in producer and screenwriter fees. According to Variety it was “the most off-again on-again major literary property in the history of American motion picture.”

But it was not alone in being dumped by a studio. Towards the end of the 1960s Hollywood was awash with abandoned projects. The rights to Broadway musical Coco had cost $2.25 million. Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate had a $12 million budget before the plug was pulled. A record $600,000 had been spent on acquiring the rights to William Styron bestseller The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Other high-priced acquisitions lumped in production limbo included The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) author John Le Carre’s A Small Town in Germany, Armageddon by Leon Uris of Exodus (1960) fame, Bullet Park by John Cheever who had written The Swimmer (1968), Caravans despite the success of the author’s Hawaii (1966) and The Inheritors by Harold Robbins who had churned out The Carpetbaggers (1964).

Hit plays were no more successful in reaching the starting grid – Arthur Miller’s After the Fall had George Cukor lined up to direct and Faye Dunaway as star and a total of $350,000 had been spent on Tom Stoppard’s  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.  

And there, surely, Forty Days of Musa Dagh should have been laid to rest. Of all these expensive projects, only Caravans would eventually see the light of day. But against all odds, interest in Forty Days of Musa Dagh remained high. Fresh from success with Where Eagles Dare (1968) producing team Elliott Kastner and Jerry Gershwin took a stab at the project, setting their sights on a new script and a 1970 start date. But the duo could not turn the idea into reality. And once again it sank to the bottom of the pile.

Armenian businessman and sometime producer John Kurkjian (The Tears of Happiness, 1974) picked up the rights through his vehicle High Investment and wooed MGM. And in 1976 the project was revived by the studio as a co-production with James B. Harris (Paths of Glory, 1957) overseeing production based on a new script by South African playwright Ronald Harwood (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1970). This was viewed as “the last attempt to revive it” and for a time it appeared as if the project would at last see the light of day. But MGM’s optimism barely lasted the year and, concluding the movie was too rich for its blood, dropped out.

Kurkjian continued to try to interest other studios and was confident. With a new script by Clarke Reynolds (Shalako, 1968), he was convinced he could get the movie off the ground with the backing of the Yugoslavian government were the film to shoot there. United Artists announced the movie would be on its release slate for 1977-1978. But that, too, proved a false dawn.

Redemption came from the most unlikely of sources –  American B-picture production outfit Cannon which had been taken over in 1979 for just $500,000 by Israeli writer-director Menahem Golem and his cousin Yoram Globus. Although this pair specialized in low-budget action pictures such as Death Wish sequels and martial arts efforts like Enter the Ninja (1981), they had artistic pretensions, borne out by The Magician of Lublin (1979) directed by Golan and starring Alan Arkin. That same year, a new version of Forty Days of Musa Dagh took shape, part-funded by High Investment and the West Berlin Senate. Charles Bronson was lined up as star. The budget was set at $10 million.

In the end, there was no Bronson and no $10 million budget, but the movie did get made in 1982 for $4 million by Transcontinental Picture Industries with the less stellar cast of Indian star Kabir Bedi (Sandokan mini-series, 1976), American television actress Ronnie Carol and character actor Guy Stockwell  (Beau Geste, 1966). It was directed by Israeli Sarky Mouradian (Tears of Happiness). It did not reach the United States for another five years. And it was no epic, coming in at a trim 94 minutes. Nor was it a huge box office success. And it’s pretty impossible to find on DVD.

Footnote: The Promise (2016) covered the same ground. Directed by Terry George, it starred Chistian Bale, Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon. It was funded by Kirk Kerkorian.

SOURCES: “Double Pan for Reich,” Variety, Feb 27, 1934, 58; “Literati: Best Sellers,” Variety, Jan 1, 1935, 58; “Wellman’s Chore,” Variety, Apr 10, 1935, 2; Advertisement, MGM, Variety, Jun 12, 1935, 25-28; “Foreign Rights Bugaboo,” Variety, Nov 27, 1935, 2; “Thalberg’s Eight; Four at $1,000,000,” Variety, Dec 25, 1935, 4; “H’Wood Foreign Jams,” Variety, Mar 25, 1936, 3; “MGM Scraps Witch of Timbuctoo and Musa Dagh,” Variety Mar 25, 1936, 3; “Film Industry Watching Blockade as B.O. Cue on Provocative Themes,” Variety, Jun 22, 1938, 1; “Carl Foreman to Metro on Loan,” Variety, Feb 1, 1961, 3;  “Columbia Waives Rights to Foreman for 40 Days,” Variety, Feb 8, 1961, 59; “Foreman’s Commitment: Doing 40 Days for MGM, Strength for Columbia,” Variety, Jul 5, 1961, 11; “Positive Side of Negatives,” Variety, May 30, 1962, 5; “Berman, 22-Year Man, Stays on MGM Lot,” Variety, Aug 1, 1962, 3; “Upcoming MG Slate May Number 30 Pix,” Variety, Jan 1, 1964, 16; “1965-1967 Will Be Roadshow Years” Variety, Sep 16, 1964, 4; “Pictures: Omar Sharif,” Variety, Dec 9, 1964, 21; “Guy Green Next Helms Musa Dagh,” Variety, Apr 14, 1965, 20; “Musa Dagh Nearer,” Variety, Jul 7, 1965, 9; “MGM Keeps Pledge of 26 Prods,” Variety, Aug 10, 1965, 5; “MGM’s (Hopefully) Final Loan,” Variety, Sep 14, 1966, 3; “3 Ponti Films on Metro O’Seas Slate,” Variety, Apr 19, 1967, 65; “Forty Days (and 34 Years) of Musa Dagh,” Variety, Apr 16, 1969, 19; “Acceptable Script As Invisible Cost Before Production,” Variety, Jul 14, 1971, 3; “Big Investment in Story Values Which Have Not Yet Been Filmed,” Variety, May 9, 1973, 28; “Werfel, After 40 years,” Variety, Jul 28, 1976, 6; “United Artists Looks Ahead; 13 from Metro Inventory,” Variety, Sep 22, 1976, 3; “Shepherd, As MGM Producer, Details Plans, Dropped Films, ” Variety, Dec 15, 1976,3; “Golan-Globus to Film 40 Days of Musa Dagh,” Variety, Feb 14, 1979, 27; “TPI Carves Out Sales Niche,” Variety, Oct 26, 1983, 69; “Film Review,” Variety, Nov 25, 1987, 19; “Cannon Completed Versus Unmade Films,” Variety, Oct 5, 1988, 52.