When Caine Was King

Producer Joseph E. Levine was so carried away by the sensational performance of Zulu (1964) in Britain that he earmarked a million-dollar marketing budget for its U.S. launch. Levine was already doing the rounds of U.S. exhibitors in January 1964 and it was reviewed that same month in Variety – which predicted it would be a “sturdy box office prospect” – leading observers to believe its launch was imminent. That it was held back till the summer suggested interest from the trade, not as fascinated by an obscure war in Africa as the British, was not as high as the producer would have liked. Even then Box Office magazine reckoned it “should be a box office smash” to emulate the $589,000 it had taken in nine weeks in the first run Plaza in London’s West End coupled with two weeks in 29 houses on the British ABC circuit.

But somewhere along the line Levine had lost heart and promoted it as if was Hercules all over again, 500 simultaneous bookings in a month, little time to build on the decent box office it attracted in New York in two weeks at the first run Palace. The drubbing Zulu (1964) received at the American box office – it did not even attract the $1 million in rentals needed to place it in the Variety annual box office chart – made trade journalists, while recognizing Michael Caine’s initial promise, reserve judgement on his future, observing that he “still has some ground to cover before he becomes as familiar to filmgoers as Sean Connery.”

Michael Caine is way down the cast list.

Despite Zulu’s failure, Variety predicted that Caine’s performance had “won this blond young man a swift passport to potential stardom” and even while The Ipcress File (1965) divided critics, the trade paper reported “there’s no disputing Caine’s personal impact…the sky’s the limit.”

To justify his deal with Harry Saltzman, Caine was committed to appearing in ten films in five years, although the producer was not only happy to loan him out to other studios but share the spoils. That was an unusual trait, given that stars as varied as Sandra Dee, Carroll Baker and Rock Hudson bristled at what they saw as exploitation, when their paymaster  retained the entire amount gained from loaning their services to other studios, often pocketing a hefty profit in the process. Caine, on the other hand, “kept the major share of any loan-out loot.”

After The Ipcress File, Caine would have five films released in the U.S. in the space of eight months from July 1966 to February 1967, an output that could make or break him. In order of U.S. launch these were: black comedy The Wrong Box (1966), ribald sex drama Alfie (1966), caper movie Gambit (1966), a second outing for Harry Palmer in Funeral in Berlin (1966) and big-budget steamy Otto Preminger drama Hurry Sundown (1967) not to mention a reissue in 1967 of Zulu to capitalize on his growing fame.

The breadth of acting skills Caine brought to these diverse movies caught the attention, by and large, of the critics as well as the industry. The National Association of Theater Owners, proclaimed him their Future Star of the Year in September 1966 with the ringing endorsement of “never has a newcomer to films so fully and immediately captured the imagination of the world audience.”

Oddly enough, there was no better follow-up as far as America was concerned to The Ipcress File than The Wrong Box in which he was a last-minute replacement for American actor George Hamilton.  The Wrong Box (1966) presented Caine as the timid romantic opposite of the lothario of Alfie and the accomplished seducer of The Ipcress File (1965) but it was the kind of role to make critics sit up and wonder what else he had in his acting box of tricks. 

But the release strategies employed by the various distributors, Columbia for The Wrong Box, Universal for Gambit and Paramount for the other three, ensured that the movies did not go down the Levine saturation-release route that had done for Zulu. Limited openings in prestigious arthouse-style cinemas allowed for slow build. In fact, it was almost tantamount to creating ‘sleepers’ out of every film. A film that remained for months at a time in one or two cinemas in a major city was the best way of driving up word of mouth. And during this hectic period whenever Caine was promoting one film, he was also being asked about all the rest.

It was almost inevitable that when a new picture opened, all the others were still playing. As a measure of how well this unplanned strategy worked, at Xmas 1966 his films were playing in six first run cinemas in New York, far more than any other star, and far more than any other star in the history of Hollywood. Each new opening boosted the box office of all the rest and when Oscar consideration or Year-End Best Awards entered the equation they served notice that, through his other films, this was an actor with a wide range of skills.

What had become quickly apparent to studios was that they had no idea how to assess Caine’s box office appeal.  Such reticence proved invaluable. The limitations imposed on his film launches ensured that audience demand would dictate the release pattern. Only after Universal had opened The Ipcress File to sensational business at the Coronet in New York at the start of August 1965 did it consider widening the movie out. Audience response gave the studio the confidence to book it towards the end of the following month into Grauman’s Chinese in Los Angeles for an “unprecedented booking.” The two cinemas could not have been more opposite – the New York house seating just 590, the Los Angeles venue nearly three times as much with 1,517 seats.  The studio was “evidently convinced to go commercial with the picture nationwide as booking into Grauman’s indicates.”

Columbia almost copied that campaign to the letter. The Wrong Box opened in early July   1966 to an “amazing” $35,000 at the 700-seat Cinema One. What was just as astonishing was that it was pulling in $28,500 in its seventh week by which time it had begun first run engagements across the country – a “socko” $25,000 in Chicago, “wham” $25,000 in Philadelphia, “boffola” $20,000 in Boston, “boffo” $18,000 in Washington D.C.

Although distributed by a different studio, Alfie followed a similar pattern, opening in New York again at the Coronet and also at the 500-seat New Embassy, breaking all-time records at both cinemas. Alfie, however,was less of a risk. On the financial front, it had already recouped its $750,000 costs solely from its London run. On the critical front, the film had won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes.

Just as important was Paramount’s marketing backing. A 16-page A3 Pressbook began by detailing both the critical acclaim enjoyed by the picture on its New York opening and its subsequent commercial success. Every advertisement was garnished with critical quotes: “Alfie bubbles with impudent humor and ripe modern wit” (Bosley Crowther, New York Times), “delightful comedy” (Judith Crist, NBC Today Show), “you are going to enjoy Alfie very much” (Life). “There’s no question about it,” crowed the Pressbook, “Alfie has completely conquered New York…(and) is the new champ of the press.” The New York Times had run four separate articles on the film, major magazines lined up to profile the star, on publicity duties Caine had come across as charming and personable, and the movie’s theme song topped the charts.

Three pages of the Pressbook were devoted to Michael Caine, calling him “multi-talented” and setting out the proposition, “Will Alfie’s Michael Caine Become the Newest Teenage Idol?” Caine predicted, “I believe it takes at least five movies to make a star of anyone,” counting Zulu as his first, plus The Wrong Box and Alfie. Given Funeral in Berlin and Gambit were still to come, he was already well on the way to proving himself correct.   

Alfie launched in New York a few weeks after The Wrong Box had already whetted appetites. The Coronet delivered a $43,000 opener and the New Embassy $33,400, both all-time non-holiday records. Second weeks were equally potent, $40,000 at the Coronet, $33,000 at the New Embassy.

So Paramount “nursed” the sleeper. It didn’t properly expand until Thanksgiving and even then was limited to 56 theaters which had to commit to 14-week runs that would see it safely past Xmas and New Year so as to be “in active exhibition” during Oscar season. Before the first Oscar nomination was in, Paramount had pulled in $3m million in U.S. rentals (the studio’s share of the box office gross) and about the same again overseas (including Britain). Winning five Oscar nominations – including Best Picture and Best Actor – boosted takings.

The Xmas 1966 unofficial “Michael Caine Season” saw a three-cinema New York opening for Funeral in Berlin (budgeted at $2.6 million) and one house for Gambit while Alfie was still playing in two houses. The Harry Palmer sequel rocked up with a “wow” $40,000 – equivalent to $356,000 today – opening week at the 813-seat Forum, an “amazing” $21,000 ($187,000 equivalent) at the 450-seat Guild (extra shows to cope with the demand) and $37,000 ($330,000 equivalent) at the 568-seat Tower East. Gambit knocked up a “smash” $20,000 at the 561-seat Sutton with Alfie bringing in a “wham” £21,000 in its 18th week at the  New Embassy plus $14,000 in its first week at the 430-seat Baronet. The capacities of all these cinemas showed that, in reality, they were glorified arthouses rather than the bigger 1,000-plus-seaters where the big-budget pictures resided.

In Britain, a top box office draw, in America king of the arthouses.  

How well his movies did outside that limitation depended on popularity and accessibility. Pairings with top female stars like Shirley MacLaine (Gambit) and Jane Fonda (Hurry Sundown) ensured that the actor’s transition into the Hollywood elite was painless. His career has had many ups and downs, and many fans know him only from his appearance in Christopher Nolan films, but in celebrating a career that encompasses nearly 70 years as a star, no one should forget the eight months that turned him into one.

SOURCES: “Levine Heads Zulu showmanship Meets,” Box Office, January 13, 1964, p8;  “Big Zulu Whoop,” Variety, January 15, 1964, p3;  Review of Zulu, Variety, January 29, 1964, p6; “Levine Sells His Theatres,” Box Office, February 10, 1964, pNE2; Advert for Zulu, Variety, April 29, p26-27; “Britain Bubbles with Talent,” Variety, April 29, 1964, p58; Review of Zulu, Box Office, June 22, 1964, pA11; Review of The Other Man, Variety, September 16, 1964, p41; Review of The Ipcress File, Variety, March 1965, p6; “Newcomer Talent in British Pix,” Variety, May 12, 1965, p57; Advertisement for Zulu, Box Office, Jun 15, 1964, p3; “Ipcress File Pre-Release in NY Aug 2,” Box Office, July 26, 1965, pE4; “Michael Caine No Bottled-In Bond,” Variety, September 15, 1965, p30; “Grauman’s Sets Extended Run of Ipcress File,” Box Office, September 20, 1965, pNC1; “Preminger Signs Caine,” Box Office, April 11, 1966, pE1; “Funeral in Berlin Budget $2,600,000,” Variety, April 27, 1966, p29; “Caine Is Able at B.O. with Five Star Roles in 33 Months since Zulu,” Variety, August 31, 1966, p2; “Michael Caine Named NATO Future Star,” Box Office, September 19, 1966, p3; “Par Nurses Its Alfie with Limited Playoff Through Holidays,” Variety, October 12, 1966, p21; “Michael Caine On Tour for Funeral in Berlin,” Box Office, November 21, 1966, pE2; “Embassy Reissues Three Caine, Belmondo Films,” Box Office, January 9, 1967, p10; “Alfie Could Be Par’s Tom Jones,” Variety, February 1, 1967, p3. Box office figures taken from the “Picture Grosses” section of Variety: July 20, 1966-September 24, 1966 and December 28, 1966.

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.

3 thoughts on “When Caine Was King”

  1. In the summer of ’64(I was nine), while on vacation with the family in Eagle River, Wisconsin, I saw ZULU. It was a defining moment in my life. Everything about the movie was perfect. I was never the same. I became obsessed with movies(much to my father’s regret). Went to a undergrad film school and then to NYU Graduate Film School. After that I became a filmmaker. Retired now, I look back at it all with total satisfaction. And all because of ZULU.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘What had become quickly apparent to studios was that they had no idea how to assess Caine’s box office appeal.’ I’m still working on my thesis that the quality and popularity of Caine’s performance is directly related to the length and the curliness of his hair…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Give that man a PhD. Caine never knew what his appeal was either, he signed up for virtually everything thrown at him on the basis that he would hit gold every now and then.

      Like

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