Yesterday was the 55th anniversary of the launch of the European premiere of Doctor Zhivago (1965) in London and would you believe it the English weather came to the promotional aid of the David Lean epic with an unseasonal snow shower as fur-clad models took to the streets on a sleigh. As was common in the 1960s, there was no such thing as a global release date. The film had been launched in the U.S. in December 1965 but only a couple of countries since then, the main drawback being the lack of available prestigious cinemas for a big budget roadshow. The delay was also caused by hope of major success at the Oscars – given Lean’s two previous films had won Best Picture – held in March.
Doctor Zhivago launched at the 1,330-seat Empire, Leicester Square, in the heart of the capital’s West End in the presence of Princess Margaret and with the director and five stars in attendance. The first public demonstration of colour television in Europe was a feature of the launch, a large screen set up in the theater foyer to relay the arrival of royalty and celebrities to the audience already seated in the cinema.
MGM had pulled out all the publicity stops, the massive advertising campaign beginning on February 1, twelve weeks prior to the opening, with the switching-on of a 40ft by 20ft electric sign in Piccadilly Circus. That triggered an advertising campaign in the press about two weeks later announcing the premiere. That served only to stoke up interest, another two weeks elapsing before tickets went on sale. Advertisements ran virtually non-stop in national daily newspapers and London evening papers as well as entertainment and film magazines.
Roadshows benefitted from press advertising more than normal pictures. The bulk of the adverts for Doctor Zhivago carried a booking form so money started rolling in to the cinema long before the first screening. Selling tickets in this way was also a bulwark against sudden changes in weather – torrential rain or glorious sunshine as equally likely to deter moviegoers – whereas if you had already booked your ticket well in advance it did not matter whether you turned up or not, and most people would attend even in sweltering heat rather than forego their ticket.
MGM also undertook the biggest advertising campaign in its history in Britain. Unlike today, when there is one universal advertisement, in those days a film might have half a dozen different pieces of artwork. Doctor Zhivago boasted fifteen. Four weeks ahead of the opening 8,000 double-crown posters were plastered over the city. One-third of the entire London bus fleet carrying such artwork, while 50 Underground stations had 48-sheets (three times the size of the normal posters) on train platforms. In addition, closer to the launch, double quads were posted in a thousand locations. A special mobile box office toured the city advertising the film and selling tickets.
A special “Background to Doctor Zhivago Exhibition” was set up in the Garringes department store opposite Victoria Station, one of the capital’s biggest travel hubs, by the Historical Research Unit and including many costumes from the production. Tie-ins were far more numerous than for the New York launch. Mansfield Fashion launched a range of popular-priced clothing based on the film promoted by a sleigh-ride through London with a bevy of models against the unexpected background of snow on April 14. A more upmarket manufacturer Sidney Massin was promoting a more expensive fur coat.
Among the other fashion tie-ins were: a white coat of Kalgan lamb with a Mongolian lamb collar from Swears and Wells, long black wool coat with white fox fur hood and collar from Femina Furs, fur hats for men and women from Edmund Mann, evening dresses from Berkertex and fur-lined fabrics from Clarewood Fashions. Hardy Amies designed male fur coats for Hepworths department stores and range of gloves for either sex for Dent Allcroft. Worldwide the Zhivago look had been reflected in collections designed by St Laurent, Dior, Cardin, Chanel and Rabanne.
Outside of fashion, there was a tie-up with Cossack Vodka. There was also a Cossack hair cream while Waddingtons produced a jigsaw puzzle. As well as hardback and paperback editions of the famous Boris Pasternak novel, there was also a hardback of the Robert Bolt Oscar-winning screenplay. The music also provided promotional crossover, the theme tune and original soundtrack already big hits. BBC2 aired a documentary on the filming of the movie and the stars and director appeared on numerous television and radio talk shows.
BBC News, Pathe newsreel cameras and CBS America all covered the premiere. Stars in attendance were Geraldine Chaplin, Julie Christie, Siobhan McKenna, Ralph Richardson and Rita Tushingham as well as Lean, Bolt and producer Carlo Ponti.
Although the movie failed to win any of the main Oscars, it still took home six: screenplay (Robert Bolt), color cinematography (Freddie Young), color art direction (John Box, Terence Marsh and Dario Simoni), set decoration (also Box, Marsh and Simoni), color costume design (Phyllis Dalton) and music score (Maurice Jarre). MGM promoted these accomplishments in its advertising and revamped its pressbook. And the studio was also able to take advantage of the fact that Julie Christie had been named Best Actress at that year’s Oscars for Darling (1965). Noted the new-look Pressbook: “probably no other motion picture actress has achieved the meteoric success and worldwide fame accorded Julie Christie.”
The Pressbook mainlined on awards of one kind or another. As well as Oscars, the Russian epic had picked up five Golden Globes included Best Dramatic Picture, Best Director and Best Dramatic Actor (Omar Sharif). It was named best film by the New York Daily News and was named one of the year’s top ten by the National Board of Review, and received awards from magazines as diverse as Seventeen, Parents and Scholastic.
Also contained in the Pressbook were snippets that might appeal to local journalists such as: six tons of nails were used in constructing the ten-acre set, Phyllis Dalton created 5,000 costumes and John Box 117 settings, rats in one scene were tested for infections, rumors of Omar Sharif shaving off his normal curly hair were false, movie livestock was donated to a local church at the end of filming.
As ever, exhibitors were bombarded with promotional ideas by MGM publicists via the Pressbook. One idea was to ask female members of the audience whether they preferred Omar Sharif clean shaven or with a moustache with the intention of interesting the local women’s editor in the results of the informal survey. Cinema owners were encouraged to send bottles of vodka to entertainment editors with a message in Russian. Empty shop windows were often available “for the asking” from rental specialists and could be used for advertising. Since Zhivago has a son in the film, one aspect encouraged was a “father and son” competition and of course it was a no-brainer to dress doormen and ushers as Cossacks.
MGM had also made special efforts to promote the movie to younger audiences and combined that with marketing the music. More than million copies of the soundtrack album had been sold and “Somewhere My Love,” a single by Teddy Randazzo incorporating lyrics to “Lara’s Theme,” had also caught fire. The combination of records and sheet music plus general publicity material could encourage record store window displays.
One of the taglines I most remember is “one man…two women…and a nation ablaze.” But it was certainly not one of the initial official taglines when the movie was originally launched. Many of the British posters had no tagline at all beyond perhaps “the entertainment event of the year.” The post-Oscar Pressbook went with either “A love caught in the fire of revolution…Turbulent were the times and fiery was the love story of Zhivago, his wife…and the passionate, tender Lara” or “The story of Zhivago – a man torn between his love for his wife and the passionate and tender Lara…told against the flaming background of revolution.”
SOURCES: Supplement to Kine Weekly, May 5, 1966; MGM Pressbook.