Setting aside the unusual circumstances of this year, we can generally count ourselves lucky these days – taking 2019 as a more standard example – if we are able to have five or six new films opening around Xmas. Hogging the limelight in the weekend before Xmas in 2109 was Star Wars Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker – the last in the current trilogy and the final part of the saga which had begun nearly half a century before – and which took the box office crown by a considerable distance from the weekend’s only other wide release opener, misconceived musical Cats. On the weekend after Xmas the wide release top spots were held by Greta Gerwig’s remake of Little Women with Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson plus animated feature Spies in Disguise while in much smaller openings were Sam Mendes future Oscar-winner 1917 and crime drama Just Mercy with Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.
That was far from the case sixty years ago. In 1960 three times as many movies opened during the festive season. A total of 18 movies were launched before, during and just after Xmas Day.
In that era, of course, the wide release was effectively in its infancy so most films would usually open in one cinema on Broadway (though a few combined that with a showing in a smaller first-run arthouse elsewhere in the city) in New York and single cinemas in the center of other major cities. The success of Ben-Hur (1959) had lit a fire under the roadshow and the arrival of these behemoths would begin a process that would see several cinemas out of commission as regards new pictures for several months of the year. Even so, regardless of how films were released, cinemagoers had a far wider choice at Xmas in 1960.
In the week before Xmas (starting December 21, 1960) all eyes in New York were focused on the roadshow opening of Otto Preminger’s Exodus starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint. United Artists had sunk colossal amounts into the picture. But it was competing at the box office with another SEVEN new big-time openings – more than opened during the entire Xmas period in 2019.
Two Elvis Presley pictures opened on the same day in New York – Paramount’s G.I. Blues and the western Flaming Star directed by Don Siegel from Twentieth Century Fox. Disney also chose that day to launch its spectacular Swiss Family Robinson. In addition, there was Jerry Lewis in comedy Cinderfella, fantasy adventure The 3 World of Gulliver, British comedy Make Mine Mink with Terry-Thomas and Stanley Donen’s romantic comedy The Grass is Greener with a topline cast of Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons.
In addition, some big-name stars were attached to movies that opened on December 21 in the smaller arthouses. Ronald Neame’s military drama Tunes of Glory with Oscar-winning Alec Guinness feuding with John Mills broke the box office record at the Little Carnegie. Sophia Loren and Maurice Chevalier headlined A Breath of Scandal, directed by Michael Curtiz. Also setting up shop in the arties were Roy Boulting’s British comedy A French Mistress with Cecil Parker and James Robertson Justice, French veteran Jean Gabin in Rue de Paris and another French film Sins of Youth.
To avoid being trampled in the rush MGM held off another day before unveiling comedy Where the Boys Are starring Yvette Mimieux, Paula Prentiss, Dolores Hart and George Hamilton. Then, as now, Xmas Day was an important day in the release calendar, reserved for the brave (or the foolish) since it generally took a very special picture to opt for that slot. In 1960, two very big fish made their play. First up was MGM’s roadshow remake of the 1931 Oscar-winning western Cimarron this time round directed by Anthony Mann and starring the ever-dependable Glenn Ford opposite French star Maria Schell. The city ‘s biggest cinema, the legendary Radio City Music Hall, was turned over to Fred Zinnemann’s Australian drama The Sundowners pairing Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr.
Two days later it was the turn of the final roadshow of the year Pepe with Cantinflas and an all-star international cast including Maurice Chevalier and Bing Crosby. Rounding out the Xmas season on December 28 came Bob Hope-Lucille Ball comedy The Facts of Life.
Films that had opened pre-Xmas had to show exceptional box office stamina in order to be kept on in their cinemas in the face of this onslaught of new films. Heading up that list, of course, was Ben Hur, now in its second year on Broadway. Spartacus starring Kirk Douglas was entering its eleventh week, John Wayne’s The Alamo its ninth, and Elizabeth Taylor incendiary drama Butterfield 8 its sixth.
Astonishing to think of the overwhelming choice offered to moviegoers then compared with the sparse selection these days.