A couple of years ago, I wrote a book about cinemagoing in 1950 in my local town of Paisley in Scotland which at that time had eight cinemas screening over 1200 movies a year to the 93,000 inhabitants. Six of the theaters were first run and two second-run. A standard program consisted of main feature, supporting feature, newsreel and cartoon and in two cinemas a serial.
I got so engrossed in my research for this book that I went back to the source a second time and examined what happened in pictures houses for the following year. This treasure trove of cinematic memories turned into a bigger book with double the number of illustrations and also included a section on reminiscences and a look back to when the two biggest cinemas in the town had opened in the 1930s.
Anyone who was born outside the capital cities of their countries and a few other major cities besides will know that way into the 1970s there was a food chain in operation for movie distribution. Although the reference books and Imdb will show movies as having been made, for example, in 1951, most cinemas would not get to screen them that year. In Paisley, for example, only 11.5 per cent of the movies made in 1951 appeared in the town during the same year. More people went to the movies in those days than now – two or three times a week was not uncommon.
The biggest films of 1951 in Paisley included musical Annie Get Your Gun, marital comedy Father of the Bride with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger in MGM blockbuster King Solomon’s Mines, Gregory Peck as Captain Horatio Hornblower, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in John Ford western Rio Grande and Greer Garson in sequel The Miniver Story.
Also topping the popularity league were Mario Lanza in biopic The Great Caruso, British war film Odette starring Anna Neagle, Alfred Hitchcock thriller Stage Fright with Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich, Anglophile Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in thriller State Secret, David Niven musical Happy-Go-Lovely (filmed in Edinburgh), Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic Samson and Delilah, John Garfield in The Breaking Point – a surprisingly speedy remake of To Have and Have Not – and comedy duo Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in At War with the Army.
The year’s number one star in Paisley was Jane Wyman – judged on how many days her pictures played in the town. In second spot came John Wayne. Joan Bennett was third. Glenn Ford and Virginia Mayo rounded out the top five. Cowboy star Gene Autry topped the B-movie brigade.
Among the serials show were Batman and Robin, The Purple Monster Strikes, Atom Man vs. Superman, King of the Rocket Men, The Adventures of Sir Galahad, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, The Monster and the Ape, Pirates of the High Seas and The Daughter of Don Q.
Although this Blog focuses on films made in the 1960s, I have written various business histories of Hollywood as well as this book about cinemagoing in 1950 in the town where I live. Paisley, in Scotland, at that time had eight cinemas for its 93,000 inhabitants. Over 1200 movies were shown that year in the town, far more than you would see at your local picture house these days. Six of the cinemas were first-run and two were second-run. Most cinemas changed their programs mid-week, but one house, the Astoria, changed its program three times a week.
Although national statistics on the annual popularity of films and stars are readily available, what is less known is that the experiences of few cities or towns fitted in with that. Each area had its own favorite movies and stars. In Paisley, in 1950, for example, the top star was Virginia Mayo followed by Abbott & Costello and John Wayne. Less than 10 per cent of the films shown were British. And, unlike today, when movies are shown everywhere all at once, less than 10 per cent of the movies seen in Paisley in 1950 were released in 1950. So it was quite a different experience to the present era. You could still see serials as part of the program and series characters like Blondie, Charlie Chan, Hopalong Cassidy, Tarzan and Bulldog Drummond were regularly shown.
There are over 50 illustrations and the book also includes a list month-by-month cinema-by-cinema of all the films shown in Paisley that year.
Two subjects dominate Covid-ridden Hollywood – the abject lack of new releases and the role of old films in keeping the movie pipeline flowing.
Films like Inception (2010), Hocus Pocus (1993), Jurassic Park (1993), The Nightmare Before Xmas (1993) and Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) among a host of others have come to the rescue of beleaguered exhibitors.
But this is not the first time that old films saved Hollywood. Reissues have been doing this trick for over a century. I wrote a 480-page book about it called Coming Back to a Theater Near You: A History of the Hollywood Reissue 1914-2014 (McFarland 2016) and since the subject was ripe for discussion I was invited to become the sole guest on a hour-long podcast by Pete Turner of Oxford Brookes University.
The golden age of the reissue came in the 1960s – the true starting point being 1964 – and therefore is very relevant to this blog.
But re-releases had been part of the Hollywood landscape since 1914 and for the same reason as now – a shortage of product. At that time exhibitors scrambled to show again older films from the two dominant stars of the era – Mary Pickford and Chaplin. For the next half-century, whenever production slumped, cinema owners turned to old films. But re-releases were a battleground between studios and exhibitors. Studios complained that each rental of an old film took away revenue that should be accruing to a new picture. Even so, there was no avoiding the need to use older films to fill out programs during years of production crisis such as the arrival of sound and especially the late 1940s and early 1950s.
But by the early 1960s with television eager to devour whatever old films were available, it seemed that the days of older movies generating any decent revenue were over. Ironically enough, it was television that hastened in a new attitude to reissues. The amount of money television was willing to pay for films depended on their box office on initial release. This issue became tricky when attempting to assess the demand for films that had been big in their day like Oscar-winner Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Television argued that interest in seeing the film on television would not be high and that should be reflected in the price it was willing to pay. Columbia begged to differ.
To prove its point, in 1964 Columbia reissued the film. It became after Gone with the Wind the second-biggest reissue of all time, generating $2.19 million in rentals (what the studio receives once exhibitors have taken their cut) which placed the film in 32nd spit in the annual box office rankings -ahead of such star-laden vehicles are The Fall of the Roman Empire with Sophia Loren and Alec Guinness, Circus World with John Wayne and Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in Robin and the Seven Hoods. But the icing on the cake was the sum now offered by the networks – a record $2 million. That set a precedent for blockbusters like The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Longest Day (1962) to press the reissue button later in the decade prior to a television sale.
But the 1960s reissue bonanza was just beginning. In 1965 the double bill of Dr No (1962)/From Russia with Love (1963) ranked fifth in that’s year’s annual box office rankings. From then on the release of every new James Bond picture was marked by a reissue double bill. The same held true of the Pink Panthers, the Matt Helm series and the Clint Eastwood westerns. The Oscars also provided a new reissue bonus. After Sidney Poitier won the Oscar for Lilies of the Field (1963), that poorly performing picture went out again with the Oscar-nominated Hud (1963). Columbia repeated the successful format by doubling up Oscar-bait Cat Ballou (1965) and Ship of Fools (1965) both starring Lee Marvin.
It was soon open season on reissues – Lili (1953) starring Leslie Caron, Bayou (1957) now renamed Poor White Trash, the dubbed version of La Dolce Vita (1960) and the serial compendium An Evening with Batman and Robin were among the disparate successes jumping on the re-release bandwagon. Originally a flop Bonnie and Clyde (1967) only became a success when it was reissued in 1968. Disney, which had brought back its animated features on a regular basis, now turned to its live-action portfolio, cleaning up with re-runs of Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and In Search of the Castaways (1962).
Alfred Hitchcock became reissue royalty with highly profitable re-releases of Psycho (1960) and North by Northwest (1959) and double bills Marnie (1964)/The Birds (1963) and Vertigo (1958)/To Catch a Thief (1955). After box office powerhouse Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1960), two previous Elizabeth Taylor plums Butterfield 8 (1960)/Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) hit reissue box office gold. There were also unsung heroes like One Million Years B.C (1966) with Raquel Welch and Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway romantic thriller The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Despite being readily available on television, Humphrey Bogart and Greta Garbo oldies played in a repertory system in arthouses while MGM launched its “Perpetual Product Plan” which saw a season of older favorites like Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald musicals playing once a week for six-to-eight-weeks.
But the decade’s biggest re-run accolades were reserved for the 70mm version of Gone with the Wind (1939). Already seen earlier in the decade in 1961 where it notched up $6million in rentals, the revamped version played in roadshow for over a year before hitting the general release trail and in total generated the phenomenal $35 million in rentals.
As my book shows, the reissue story did not end there. It simply opened the floodgates. The launch of the Director’s Cut and the restoration of lost classics like Metropolis (1927) and Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) took the reissue business down a different commercial route while 3D and Imax would not have shown such commercial potential except for the reissues in those formats of films like The Wizard of Oz (1939)and Titanic (1997) not forgetting the current trend for sing-a-long revivals and films shown with an accompanying live orchestra.
To round off my week of celebration of The Magnificent Seven, I’ve made a 10-minute video for Youtube (link below). A number of people contacted me to ask why I wrote the book in the first place. As that was quite unusual in itself, I thought i would explain myself.
A decade ago as a treat to myself I purchased an annual subscription at considerable expense to the archive of daily trade magazine Variety. This allowed me to look back at over 100 years of this legendary publication. I used to just pop around the archive wherever fancy took me. At the time I was – and still am – a box office hound. Every week Variety published upwards of three pages of box office stats, listing how movies performed in all the major cities in America. I was poking around the stats for Butterfield 8 (1960) which delivered sensational figures wherever it opened. Every now and then I would come across a listing for The Magnificent Seven and since that was one of my favorite pictures I back-tracked a few months to see how well it had opened in New York.
I must have spent well over a week going over again and again three months of box office figures. Again and again because I couldn’t find any mention of how well the movie had done in New York. I went through the pages with a fine tooth comb, thinking I must just have missed it. But once I had done that, I came to the conclusion that the movie had not opened in New York at all. In those days, every big picture opened at one of the top theaters in or around Broadway. And The Magnificent Seven counted as a big picture. When I got to the year-end results – Variety published an annual chart – I realized the movie had not done well at all. It was, in fact, a flop.
So I began to wonder why a movie that I had always considered a big hit had been the reverse. I judged it a hit because it was reissued several times. It popped up every time there was a sequel, sometimes in a double bill with another from the series, sometimes dualed with a separate picture. For about 15 years after its release it made regular appearances on the reissue circuit – and this was even after being shown on television in the United States as early as 1963.
It didn’t make any sense. Who would reissue a flop? Why would a flop inspire sequels?
So I dug around a bit more and eventually found out all about the tortuous release history of The Magnificent Seven and my research revealed more of its dramatic history. I became fascinated by the flop that became a hit. It took me more than three years to find out as much as I could about the film from a variety of sources – including the United Artists and Mirisch archives held at the University of Wisconsin, and other trade publications like Box Office, Motion Picture Daily and Motion Picture Herald – and conversations with the screenwriter Walter Bernstein and anybody else I could find who had anything to do with the film. And then it took another year to write the book.
The story behind the making of The Magnificent Seven could have been a thriller itself. Filming was delayed for two years and on the eve of the shoot nearly halted by an actor’s strike, a writer’s strike, interference by the Mexican government and two million-dollar lawsuits. Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and even Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson (then world heavyweight champion) were all considered for roles. Anthony Quinn was fired.
The book also reveals how Brynner became the biggest independent producer in Hollywood, why United Artists hated it and denied it a prestigious premiere in New York and why it subsequently flopped at the box office. Also revealed is the truth behind the Brynner-McQueen feud and the scene-stealing battle among the actors. The landmark study also forensically examines the screenplay and shows for the first time who – out of the seven screenwriters involved – wrote what, as well as providing a critical examination of the direction.
In 2015 I published my first major book about the movies – The Making of The Magnificent Seven – and I was lucky enough to receive a review in the Wall St Journal. So I thought I would reprint it below since this month marks the 60th anniversary of the film opening. In recognition of the anniversary the publishers have made substantial price reductions for the print and Kindle version – the latter being less than half the original cover price.
Wall St Journal
These Guns for Hire
Heroism, the film subversively suggests, can sometimes lie in settling down to domestic life.
‘The Magnificent Seven,” when it appeared in theaters in 1960, would have seemed an unlikely addition to the canon of classic films. Its initial release was a flop at the box office, and the reviews were mixed. Even today, film writers commonly place it in the second tier of westerns, beneath “The Searchers,” “High Noon” and a few others.
All guns blazing – The Magnificent Seven launch an empire – three sequels, a remake and a television series.
But if it’s only a runner-up among critics, the story of tough but emotionally vulnerable gunmen coming to the aid of a poor Mexican village is within the top ranks of another canon—what might be called the people’s canon. The film’s popularity grew over time, both in America and abroad. It earned more at the box office in its second four years than in its first three; when the BBC showed it on British television for the first time in 1974, it drew an estimated 40% of the population. “If not the most critically-admired western of all time,” Brian Hannan notes in his account of the making of the film, “The Magnificent Seven can certainly lay claim to being the most loved.”
The film was a pioneering attempt by an American studio to remake a foreign feature. Its source was Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film “Seven Samurai,” which the actor Yul Brynner had learned about from his friend Anthony Quinn. Brynner bought the rights with the intention of directing rather than starring.
In the volatile development process that followed, the film ended up not in the hands of Brynner but in those of John Sturges, who had started his directing career making short films for the Army in World War II. The Vladivostok-born Brynner would play the lead gunman. He would be joined by, among others, television actors Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson,James Coburn and Robert Vaughn, for whom the film would be their big break.
The composer of the film’s music, Elmer Bernstein, was the director’s third choice, possibly his fourth. But Bernstein’s hiring proved a stroke of luck: His stirring symphonic score, now practically synonymous with the Old West, would be the film’s unseen co-star.
The screenplay by William Roberts and Walter Newman—the latter took his name off the film over a dispute about credits—was broadly similar to that of Kurosawa’s original. In both films, a farm village impoverished by the raids of a bandit gang sends a few men off in search of deliverance. The men meet a master fighter who agrees to help and enlists a fighting force. When the recruits arrive at the village to drive the gang away, both the bandits and the farmers themselves prove to be more formidable obstacles to the gunmen than expected.
Yet Roberts and Newman seemingly defied the laws of physics, reducing the 31/2 hours of Kurosawa’s film to two hours while making “The Magnificent Seven” richer in both incident and characterization. The supporting gunmen have distinct, vividly drawn personalities and motives. In “The Magnificent Seven,” the chief bandit—who is all but faceless in “Seven Samurai”—has an ignoble nobility that makes him almost sympathetic. Indeed, hardly any of the characters in the film are ciphers, not even the dunce who refuses to let Coburn’s gunman and knife-thrower walk away from a duel. One of the useful contributions of Mr. Hannan’s account is to show in detail just how the writers—with, among other things, efficient storytelling devices and shrewd shifts in emphasis—accomplished what they did.
“The Magnificent Seven” is also, to a surprising extent, a film of ideas. Although its precise period is never specified, it ties the gunmen’s limited work prospects to a force that will never stop bearing down on them—the encroachment of civilization. Also notable is the film’s subversion of its own foundations with its suggestion that heroism can lie in settling down to domestic life. For several of the gunmen, the possibility exerts an attraction that they let slip in unguarded moments. The question is whether, as Mr. Hannan puts it, “they have come too far down the road to change.”
The filmmakers, Mr. Hannan tells us, had an unwanted collaborator in the Mexican government. Perturbed by Hollywood’s earlier unfavorable portrayals of the country, the Mexican film bureau demanded and got significant sway over the script as a condition of shooting the film in Mexico. Among the bureau’s requirements was that Mexicans would not go in search of American fighters, an implication of Mexican inferiority. (Modern academic commentary on the film has suggested that the filmmakers set “The Magnificent Seven” in Mexico as a positive metaphor for U.S. intervention overseas during the Cold War; the more mundane truth is that Brynner had decided not to work in the U.S. for tax reasons.)
As Mr. Hannan recounts, screenwriter Roberts found a clever solution to Mexico’s demand: The farmers would go not to find mercenaries, American or otherwise, but to buy guns with which to defend themselves. While looking for guns in a border town, they would encounter Brynner’s character, who would introduce the idea of hiring men, telling them that “nowadays” gunmen are “cheaper than guns.” The shift gave Roberts an unexpected chance to strike the film’s thematic note of societal change and the gunmen’s struggles with it.
Mr. Hannan’s research for “The Making of the Magnificent Seven” is impressive. Although he apparently spoke to only one of the principals (most are dead), he makes the most of archival material. If anything, he sometimes goes over the line from authoritative to exhaustive. But on the whole, it’s a story well told.
As it happens, Hollywood is remaking the movie with Denzel Washington and Chris Prattamong its stars. In an ideal world, the remake, like the original, would be a film that parents can watch with their teen and preteen children—while also seeing them absorb lessons deeper than the “believe in yourself” of today’s standard fare. But as “The Magnificent Seven” tells us, it’s not an ideal world.
—Mr. Price is the author of “The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company.”
While Easy Rider was triggering a “youthquake” and Midnight Cowboy breaking censorship taboos, the western in 1969 hit a new peak. Or so I had thought for many years.
So I set out to see if my theory might have some truth in it. Four true masterpieces in The Wild Bunch, True Grit, Once upon a Time in the West and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – more than in any other single year – were helped along by a few others that for various reasons fell shy of greatness such as The Stalking Moon, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, and the hilarious Support Your Local Sheriff.
I watched the 40-plus westerns that were released in 1969 to write this book. New directors like George Roy Hill reinvigorated the western while veteran Sam Peckinpah at last found popular approval and the even more experienced Henry Hathaway turned his decades of skills onto True Grit.
Andrew V McLaglen fulfilled the promise of Shenandoah with the vastly underrated The Undefeated. Raquel Welch was anointed Queen of the Western. Old-timers John Wayne (True Grit and The Undefeated), Gregory Peck (The Stalking Moon and Mackenna’s Gold)and Robert Mitchum (Young Billy Young and The Good Guys and the Bad Guys) appeared in a brace of westerns each, as did newcomer Robert Redford. While Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin tried their hand at a musical (the latter scoring a hit single) it was Jean Seberg who stole that show.
Taken as a whole, I found themes repeated again and again. The most obvious, of course, were allusions in one way or another to Vietnam. But pursuit and escape were other dominant themes, and the movies also took a good hard look at women’s rights, changing attitudes towards African-Americans (100 Rifles turned Jim Brown in an action star) and Native Americans.
Watching so many movies from a single genre one after the other I also became very conscious of how directors used the screen, Hathaway’s use of extreme long shot, for example, or McLaglen’s widescreen compositions. Of all the books I’ve written this was the most enjoyable to write because I had so much fun watching the movies.