Humphrey Bogart: 1960s Revival Champ

When Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954) was reissued in 1963 the star attraction was undoubtedly Audrey Hepburn, hot after Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Charade (1963), rather than William Holden, tumbling down the box office charts, or Humphrey Bogart, six years deceased. When the film was reissued two years later on the back of an even hotter Hepburn after My Fair Lady (1964), Bogart was assuredly the star. What happened in between was one of the oddest twists in motion picture history and one that would turn the actor into the biggest revival star of the 1960s.

But if you were to select the Bogart picture most likely to reignite public interest in the star, it would not be John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953), a flop on initial release and by 1965 for legal reasons never shown on television. But in one of those quirks of programming the old Bogart found a new lease of life. Opening in spring 1964 at the 250-seat Avenue Cinema in New York it racked up $7,000 – equivalent to $65,000 today, totting up $30,000 ($279,000 equivalent) in a six-week run – phenomenal amounts for such a small venue. It shifted over to the 55th St Playhouse where it remained for another four weeks. The Art Cinema chain picked it up for wider release, sending it out in its thirty-six houses with, once again, outstanding results ($7,000 in one week in Boston, $5,000 in Washington). In Philadelphia it ran simultaneously in two houses.

In 1965 Dominant Films, part of United Artists, reissued a package of nineteen Bogart oldies, available on a rental rather than fixed price basis, and bookings were conditional on cinemas undertaking a two-week engagement, one film for the whole fortnight or the entire supply over the period, or any kind of program arrangement in between. There was no shortage of takers, especially after it became known that the 8th St Playhouse in New York, generally a second-run arthouse, and the 495-seat Carnegie in Chicago had each seen receipts hit the $10,000 ($93,000 equivalent) mark. The former double-billed fourteen pictures from the selection available, switching programs every two days.

Demand for the program was so high, prints were rationed. In the next fourteen cinemas on the release schedule, venues were allocated a maximum of six movies over the two-week period, sometimes limited to just two. When it became obvious that this gold mine was being given away too cheaply, a new strategy emerged: weekly double bills. In what amounted to a Humphrey Bogart greatest hits package the Carnegie in Chicago cleared nearly $15,000 ($139,000 equivalent) over three consecutive weeks with the following programs: The Petrified Forest (1936)/Key Largo (1948), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)/Casablanca (1942), and The Maltese Falcon (1941)/High Sierra (1951).

These grosses were even more astonishing in light of the fact that nearly all his seventy-five pictures were available on television, free of charge, on constant rerun, demand highest in the late-late slot. In 1966, United Artists Associates, a division of UA TV, referred to its portfolio of forty-five Warner Brothers features as “the most significant phenomenon of this era of entertainment history” It was estimated that screenings of his movies totalled two hundred per year.

Although there had been sporadic screenings of golden oldies in the U.S., exhibitors did not appear to share the same penchant for classics. Certainly, the U.S. lagged behind Europe in that respect. Wuthering Heights (1939), a huge rerun favourite in Europe, in 1963 in Paris attracted 30,000 admissions in three days in a trio of cinemas. In February 1963 half the cinemas in the French capital were given over to classics.

The most successful classics operator in the U.S. was MGM which in the early 1960s set up the Perpetual Program Plan. Investing in new prints of MGM oldies and a distinct marketing plan, the studio offered a package on an innovative basis. Rather than tying cinemas down to one-week or two-week contracts, as would be standard for arthouses, and therefore limiting potential bookings over fears that audience demand would peter out after a few days, MGM had hit on the idea of showing the films once a week on the same day of the week – Wednesday the most popular – for a season of six-eight weeks. Patrons could book a “season ticket” to see all the films. This approach made it far more appealing to the ordinary cinema, rather than the arthouse specialist, since a special showing could lift the midweek quiet period.

The first offerings from the Perpetual Program Plan were “Golden Operettas” – Rose Marie (1936), The Merry Widow (1934), The Great Waltz (1938), Sweethearts (1938), The Chocolate Soldier (1941) and The Student Prince (1954). The package played in over 3,500 cinemas. Expecting little more than $60 for their Wednesday income, cinemas found themselves taking in $300-$900 a night. The Chocolate Soldier could bring in as much as $2,200 a night, The Student Prince $1,500. MGM followed up with a program of films based on famous books such as Little Women (1949) and a third package revolved around musicals like Singing’ in the Rain (1952) and The Bandwagon (1953).  

The Humphrey Bogart concept was a considerable step up from this once-a-week program. The Bogart craze reached its commercial height in 1967. But there was one Bogart picture that audiences had been denied a showing for a decade. The African Queen (1952) had been made by British company Romulus and distributors had been put off taking up an option to show it due to a technical issue with the color prints. The impetus for its revival was the tenth anniversary of Bogart’s death, an event that stimulated an avalanche of newspaper articles and books. Producer Sam Spiegel sold reissue rights for The African Queen to Trans-Lux, a small arthouse chain in expansion mode planning to move into distribution. When the Los Angeles Times held a poll to identify the oldie most moviegoers wanted to see, The African Queen topped the poll. The buzz surrounding Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) created massive interest in the picture’s co-star Katharine Hepburn.

It was no surprise that The African Queen launched – in November 1967 – at a New York arthouse, the 600-seat Trans-Lux East, but the box office blew the industry away. An opening week of close on $20,000 ($186,000 equivalent) put the oldie into the cinema’s all-time top ten. What was astonishing was that it received as many bookings outside the expected release route of arthouses and the college circuit and was taken up by local theaters all over the country, shown in four houses in San Mateo, for example. It formed double and triple bills with other Bogart films, as well as The Quiet Man (1952) and topped bills that included films like Waterhole 3 (1967). After the first flush of first run and nabes, it turned up as support to contemporary pictures like Dark of the Sun (1968) and underwent another revival in 1969 before being sold to television in 1970.

SOURCE: Brian Hannan, Coming Back To A Theater Near You; A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016) p127-133, 198-206.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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