Behind the Scenes: Exposing the Myth of the “Sound Revolution”

It’s only according to film historians and movies like Babylon (2022) that the transition to sound in 1927 was instantaneous. Maybe from a contorted academic perspective, but not for audiences and not for exhibitors. That The Jazz Singer (1927) proved momentous required not one revolution, but two. For it was responsible for nothing less than the beginnings of the wide release.

There had been sporadic attempts at day-dating, day-and-date, simultaneous openings, saturation bookings, whatever you wanted to call it, from 1913 to 1920. You might find an occasional picture released all at once into 20 houses in New York, but more likely it was a picture that showed up on two or three screens in Detroit, San Francisco or St Louis. In 1921 there were 300 day-and-date bookings for Chaplin’s The Kid with 70 prints allocated to New York and 40 to Chicago. But wide release remained rare.

In 1924 in Cleveland 65 nabes signed up to day-date Let Not Man Put Asunder and First National attempted to interest 100 theaters in day-dating Lilies of the Field. In 1927 MGM promoted Greta Garbo-John Gilbert in Love as opening, without specific dates, in “approximately” 100 theaters while Fox claimed 90 had signed up for Colleen Moore in Her Wild Oat (1927).

However, “simultaneous” was widely open to interpretation, not necessarily meaning day-dating.  The kind of release system we know today remained rare and sporadic. Wide release did not take off because there was no reason for it to do so.

While The Jazz Singer single-handedly thrust Warner Brothers into the higher echelons of the industry, it did not herald a tidal wave of talkies. Despite its success, the jury was still out – was it a gimmick or a revolution? Without the complications of sound, movies were a $1.5 billion ($25 billion today) business and the idea that theater owners would cotton on to the potential of sound and rush to become “wired” was soon demolished. Predictions of 350 sound installations by the end of 1927 proved wildly optimistic, less than 100 theaters obliging.

Exhibitor antipathy could be laid in large part at the studio door. Owners had to pay the cost of changing to sound – plus a weekly royalty to Vitaphone of 10 cents per seat – with no guarantee that the trend would last or, more importantly, that it would iron out existing inequalities.  Studios and exhibitors were at war. Exhibitor anger against studios was demonstrated by the volume of complaints to the 32 Film Boards of Trade, over 23,000 in 1925-26 – more than one for every theater in existence – wrongs righted to the tune of $4.6 million in damages.

The studios had their own complaints against exhibitors: of the $650 million paid by the public for theater tickets in 1926, only $185 million found its way into their coffers as rentals, around 28 per cent of the gross, remarkably low by modern standards. With profit margins on film production hovering around 15 per cent, studios, preparing to invest $159 million in movies in the 1927-1928 season, could be forgiven for believing they were taking all the risk, with exhibitors hiving off so much profit they could afford more – $250 million – in theater construction.

Exhibition was a sore point for studios since they had so little share of it. By the end of 1926, they owned around five percent of the total. Neither studio-owned chains nor independent circuits had anything approaching a monopoly, or even a dominant share, most being regional-based rather than nationwide. The biggest theaters were the most important. Super-theaters on Broadway and big city downtown areas could charge $2.20 admission compared to the national average of 28-35 cents. In 1927, 68 of these behemoths generated a total of $47 million ($790 million in today’s figures), the 5,450-seat Capitol in New York alone nabbing $2.7 million ($45 million).

The traditional method of releasing silent features depended on, effectively, withholding them. Each sector of exhibition obediently waited its turn while competition for new pictures between rival exhibitors served to stoke bids. The release system was littered with gaps of up to three weeks clearance, during which movies did not play at all as they worked their way down the ladder, this being the accepted method to ensure that the public still flocked to the more expensive houses rather than holding off till they turned up in a cheaper nabe, the waiting theaters prohibited from even advertising in advance such forthcoming attractions in local newspapers.

Studios also used hits as a way of enticing theater owners to commit to annual contracts. In theory, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles would get the biggest movies first. In reality, because big hits were allowed to run as long as first run theaters wanted them, it was virtually impossible to arrange the simultaneous release, on any scale, of a new feature. The long runs were permitted in part because of the grosses that could be achieved and in part because the amount of money taken in first run was the measure by which rental rates were set for further down the line.

A movie that ran for months at top prices (“a $2 hit”) in New York would attract higher rental prices in smaller cities than one lasting a week or two.  Some runs were exceptional: The Big Parade (1925) and Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ (1925) ran on Broadway for a year, Mare Nostrum (1926) and The Scarlet Letter (1926) for seven months, The Merry Widow (1925) for six months and La Boheme (1926) for four months.

Even had studios desired it, length of run, dictated by different exhibitor circumstances and public reaction in various cities, conspired to make simultaneous first run openings well nigh impossible. Fifteen cities constituted the peak of movie first run box office in 1926: Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Providence, San Francisco and Washington.

But it proved impossible throughout that year for a single picture to complete a run in all of these cities. The Big Parade opened in New York, Los Angeles and Washington on the same day, January 2, but in no other city in this list that year, its simultaneous opening therefore limited to just 20 per cent of first run in these major cities. Ben Hur also opened on January 2 in New York but did not reach Philadelphia, its only other port of call that year, until June. Aloma of the Seven Seas managed 80 per cent penetration, but it was a lengthy enterprise, beginning on May 22 in New York and ending on November 20 in Washington. The Sea Beast opened in only six cities within a four-month period.

So it was entirely feasible that, following the combined restraints imposed by both exhibitors and studios, The Jazz Singer may have taken as long as any of these features to traverse the country and still, within year of its premiere, not been seen in all the major cities.  In the first few post-premiere months, only three of the key fifteen cities showed it.

So a movie that was a sensation in New York remained a New York sensation only. There was nothing immediate, as film scholars have suggested, as regards the rest of the nation’s audiences and exhibitors.

However, Warner Brothers, using the prospect of immediate payback to entice theater owners to install sound, broke with tradition and unleashed an unprecedented release onslaught.

In so doing, the studio invented the modern wide release.

In March 1928 The Jazz Singer opened simultaneously in 235 theaters natonwide. But that was not all that was revolutionary. For a start, exhibitors had to contract to pay a percentage of the receipts, on a sliding scale from week one, rather than a flat rental. Secondly, the studio dictated the length of run, rather than the exhibitor, Warner Brothers demanding a minimum eight-week run. Thirdly, the studio expanded the initial day-and-date idea into second- and third-run bookings, triggering a series of simultaneous multiple releases in the nabes. After first runs were completed, large numbers of nabes took part in wider day-dating programs, in Philadelphia, for example, after twelve weeks in first run, twenty other houses throughout the city lined up for simultaneous wide release, a situation repeated across the country. Fourthly, those theaters way down the release chain that normally played a split week had to commit to a full weeks.

In one fell swoop, Warner Brothers challenged the existing order. Multiple release meant that studios would no longer be held to ransom by giant picture houses determining not just when a major movie played but, unintentionally perhaps, the restrictions that followed in its wake. By dictating minimum length of run, Warner Brothers took back control of “exclusive” engagements. Clearance stipulated that the theater at the top of the release hierarchy had exclusive rights to exhibition and could hold onto the movie for as long as it wished. Obviously, studios were not averse to this as the biggest theaters attracted the biggest audiences. But if a movie was a sensation, the studio could not cash in on media attention by yanking it from downtown and sending it out wider while public interest was at a peak.

With The Jazz Singer, Warner Brothers guaranteed exclusivity, but on its terms. A big city first run theater had to cede control over length of run in order to show the picture. On the other hand theaters all over America would have access to new movies in a way that, heretofore, had been virtually forbidden. The arrival of sound spurred studios to shorten release patterns and widen openings in order to reassure those installing the new equipment that it was going to be worthwhile and, also, that they would not have to wait ages to receive a return on their investment.

Simultaneous opening became the way forward both in first run and in nabes, the size of saturation varying enormously from those who topped The Jazz Singer theater count to those who came nowhere near, and not just for sound. In fact, The Jazz Singer saturation record barely lasted a month, beaten by new silent comedy Speedy starring Harold Lloyd at Easter in 250 theaters nationwide.

The main limitation to simultaneous opening was the shortage of prints. Studios and independents produced 800 pictures a year and the average life of a print was 59 showings (around 100 working days). Typically, an ordinary feature would require 150, increasing to 200-250 for studio “specials,” roadshows receiving 300-plus (although this included prints for overseas), so, annually, a studio might have upwards of 7,500 prints of new films in circulation. With prints costing 4 cents per foot, around $280 for a seven-reel movie, Hollywood’s annual expenditure was in the millions.

Sound necessitated an increase in prints. Availability rather than restricted access was key, so studios were forced to place sound pictures in those houses which could play them, and that incurred a faster play-off than before. But since relatively few cinemas were wired, movies appeared in silent and sound versions. For Two Lovers (1928) starring Ronald Colman only 55 of the 320 prints were specified as sound, a similar ratio for DeMille’s King of King.

By now, whether exhibitors were complicit or not, studios were committed to sound, having set aside $5 million for sound stages, although, in cautious contradiction, leasing equipment rather than buying it. For the 1928-1929 season Paramount scheduled up to 50 movies with synchronized sound, Warner Brothers 30, of which five (Lights of New York, The Desert Song, The Terror, Conquest and Home Towners) would be all-talkie, First National 31, and Universal nine. MGM and Columbia were slower to respond, MGM’s first talkie White Shadows in the South Seas not available till late summer 1928, Columbia’s talkie debut The Lone Wolf’s Daughter not ready until the following year

By summer 1928 only 400 theaters had switched to sound – barely four percent of the total – hardly suggesting a revolution had taken hold. In some areas, the availability of sound was negligible or non-existent, only five wired theaters in West Virginia, four in South Carolina, three in Maine, Utah and Nebraska, two in Louisiana, one in Delaware, Vermont and Wyoming, but none at all in New Hampshire or Nevada.  

Theaters which had managed the conversion encountered a dearth of new sound product. In an era when most theaters got through up to two hundred features a year, the bulk of what was on offer sound-wise was dominated by shorts comprising comic and dramatic monologues and dialogues or featuring bands, orchestras, and operatic or semi-operatic numbers. Talkie feature production was less straightforward than silent, considerable gaps between movies. It took Warner Brothers six months after Lights of New York to bring out another all-talking picture, The Terror, which hit Broadway as a two-a-day roadshow on August 15, 1928. 

The slow uptake from exhibitors was not just due to natural caution but fear about making the wrong choice. There was a baffling array of equipment to assist in the conversion to sound, ten versions of what were termed “sound picture devices” and nearly as many “synchronization devices.” Installation cost was substantial, $2,500 for a 2,000-seater for Qualitone, for example ‘Uncertainty, unrest, indecision’ choked the business. Cities like Memphis, Minnesota and Omaha and entire areas like the northwest and the Cornbelt simply refused to countenance sound.

The impact on the existing inventory was catastrophic. Exhibitors stopped renting new films, in what amounted to a “buying strike” in 1928 especially of companies which only made silents. The boycott affected all films and continued through 1929 as exhibitors were “now wary of signing up for product too far in advance lest revolutionary developments are in store again.’   

With booking paralysis threatening the industry, studios took coherent action. Warner Brothers focused on increased accessibility; ‘day-dating with Broadway’ became an integral element of Warner Brothers launches. In order to rouse theaters from their torpor, Hollywood took the unusual step of creating a generic campaign, promoting talkies to the public. ‘How to focus the attention of the public,’ was a tall order when there was ‘no precedent to fall back on.’

Studios realized theaters would be more susceptible to public pressure and in August 1928 Paramount promoted the concept of sound through “the greatest advertising campaign in the history of pictures” to the 100 million readers of 695 newspapers in 413 cities while a month later Warner Brothers launched a million-dollar advertising campaign promoting sound via 125 daily newspapers.

During 1929 other studios followed the Warner Brothers example of day-dating with Broadway and to find a way round the Broadway logjams, new movies were launched away from New York, Fox, for example, opening Sunnyside Up starring the popular duo of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell in Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis and Milwaukee long before it reached New York. United Artists’ Trespasser starring Gloria Swanson only found its way to New York after a string of bookings including Buffalo, Omaha, Atlanta, Detroit and Cincinnati. Paramount “pre-released” Close Harmony (‘Hear Charles Buddy Rogers and Nancy Carroll Sing and the Whole Cast Talk!’) in five cities, but not Chicago and New York.

Exasperated by exhibitor inertia regarding sound, which had threatened to throttle the burgeoning technology, and wishing a bigger share of the overall pie, studios had also embarked on a theater-buying spree, acquiring both first run theaters and chains of nabes, the “Big Six” studios now in control of 3,800 houses. 

But in 1929 Warner Brothers remained king of the wide release, setting a new simultaneous multiple release opening record, the 558 theaters involved in the launch of Queen of the Night Clubs ‘on or about March 16’ more than doubling the previous high-water mark. And it charged ahead with unprecedented numbers of simultaneous openings to satisfy demand (5,000 houses wired by August, 43 per cent using Vitaphone), maintain its position as the market leader in sound, build market share,  drive up its stock price, and to capitalize on profits from the exhibition sector now that the company had invested more in that field.

But it had taken a full two years since The Jazz Singer for the industry to reach a turning point. The schedules for 1929-1930 revealed that for the first time the production of talkies outweighed that of silents, 504 vs. 403. Such volumes would more than satisfy the needs of the average theater.

So, yes, the slowest recorded revolution in history. And it took another revolution in wide release to make it possible.

SOURCE: Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere, A History of the Hollywood Wide Release, 1913-2017 (McFarland, 2019) p11-21. There are over 100 references for these pages so I’m not going to print them all here. You can get them in the book if you so desire.

The Saddest Story I Ever Told: The Glen Cinema Disaster, New Year’s Eve, 1929

Celebration is always tinged with sadness in Paisley, Scotland, on New Year’s Eve. Nearly a century ago the town was rocked by the deaths of 71 children at a matinee showing of King Vidor silent film The Crowd (1928) at the Glen Cinema.

It was traditional in those days to pack children off to the cinema on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve (“Hogmanay” in the Scottish parlance) so that houses could be cleaned and food prepared for the expected visitors that evening. The Glen Cinema was ironically the town’s first licensed picture house. That was in 1910 and equally ironically licensing – the Cinematograph Act of 1909 – was brought in for safety reasons and to control fly-by-night operations in the exhibition wild west of the era.

By 1929, the town had seven cinemas although some mixed movie exhibition with other events and some operated part-time. Apart from the Glen the town boasted the La Scala, the only one equipped with sound, the Alex, West End, Palladium, Rink and Clark Town Hall. Over 700 kids, some as young as three, headed for the Glen to kick off the annual holiday. For some it was their first visit to the cinema. For many it would their last.

Everyone in the movie business knew that the the film used in movies contained a lethal substance – nitrocellulose. “Nitrate film is extremely flammable and once ignited cannot be extinguished because it creates its own oxygen as it burns giving off toxic fumes as it does so,” explained expert Michael Binder. But if people were not killed by a flame that wouldn’t go out or gas that grew stronger by the minute they would die from the one complication common to every fire – panic. 

Over 600 people had died in cinema fires, most trampled or suffocated during the panic, in the first three decades of the twentieth century. On the last day of the third decade the toll rose sharply.

In fact, the tragedy should never have happened for the simple reason it was, initially, under control. In those days, once a reel had been screened, it was the duty of the assistant projectionist to take it to the rewind room when it could be rewound,  ready for return to the distributor. In doing so, assistant projectionist McVey “small for his age” heard a hissing noise and spotted smoke escaping from the film canister. Aware the film could instantly combust, the brave lad headed for a side exit in the lobby. But it was locked.

So he left it there smouldering and ran through the crowded cinema and upstairs to the office of general manager Charles Dorward. Together they ran back through the cinema, diverting the audience’s attention from the screen. By the time the children turned round smoke had begun creeping in to the auditorium.

Panic ensued. They ran for the back exit. But that was locked. The ones at the back didn’t know it was locked and pressed forward on the ones at the front. The lucky ones broke windows and jumped out into the street.

By the time help arrived, corpses had piled up. Bodies were so tightly wedged together they had to be prised apart.

Alerted by screaming, the town ground to a standstill. The fire brigade and police and passersby rushed to the rescue, removing the canister, helping those still trapped to escape. Buses were commandeered to carry the tiny bodies to an overflowing mortuary. Terrified parents had to enter the mortuary hoping against hope that they would not have to identify their little boys or girls. Other parents were roaming the streets hunting for their offspring.

Despite being given artificial respiration, sixty-nine children were already dead; another two died later. Another 60 children, hysterical and in shock, received treatment, of these 40 were kept in hospital, some with broken bones, others with footprints embedded on their skin or whose injuries were so severe they could not walk again for two or three months.

There was no mental health counselling in those days of course so all the survivors remained haunted by their memories. Like soldiers returning from World War One they would not talk about what they had endured. Some of the older ones just disappeared, quitting school as soon as they could, heading anywhere other than Paisley.

The pain was unimaginable. Three-year-old Margaret Gielty returned home without her two brothers. Hugh Stewart sat stock still in shock in the middle of the panic until rescued. Of the children in his street who had gone to the cinema, ten-year-old William Porter was the only one to survive. Classrooms were decimated. Three-year-old Donald Gribbin was so terrified to go home without a shoe that he returned to the cinema and scrabbled among the sweet-wrappers, orange peel and abandoned clothing until he found it.

After a Government Inquiry new safety laws were passed but flammable film was not banned.

Blatant Xmas Plug – “1960s Movies: Behind the Scenes” /”1960s Movies Redux” / “Paisley at the Pictures, Part III: 1952”

I have given in to entreaty. Demand might be too strong a word. Or you could say, using a phrase that I hope is consigned to the past, I have responded to “constructive criticism.”

I have been contacted by a goodly number of my readers wondering, to save them trawling through what is now close on 750 reviews, whether there was another, simpler, way for them to pore through the collection. If there was, in other words, a way of putting the collection together in a manner that could be accessed in one fell swoop.

Fortunately, I came up with a solution. I could publish them in book form, both in Kindle and for those, like myself, who prefer to hold a physical object, as printed material. Unfortunately, it would not be possible to put the entire set of reviews in one book. I’m not saying it would bust the Internet, but a book over 500,000 words long would be a very sizeable undertaking in either format. I should know, I got into trouble with my American publisher McFarland for delivering a book that totalled 250,000 words (Coming Back to a Theater Near You, in case you’re interested.)

So I’m publishing the works in stages and as two separate publications, although the titles, I have to admit,  and the covers as well for that matter, are similar.

1960s Movies: Behind the Scenes Volume One does what it says on the tin. It’s a collection of the first 30-odd articles examining what went wrong or right in making particular movies during the decade. It ranges from Battle of the Bulge (1965), Dr No (1962), The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) and now, officially, the greatest western ever made Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) to Operation Kid Brother (1967), Secret Ceremony (1969) and The Ipcress File (1965) plus the Alistair MacLean quartet of The Secret Ways (1961), The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Satan Bug (1965) and Ice Station Zebra (1968).

In addition, there is a sampling of two other popular features of the Blog , “Book into Film” and “Pressbooks,” – a couple of interviews and various articles on developments that affected the industry during the decade. There are illustrations throughout.

1960s Movies Redux Volume One is a companion piece featuring over 100 movies, including many of the pictures covered in the Behind the Scenes book, roughly presented in the order they originally appeared in the Blog. Ideal if you’ve still got a lot of catching up to do and don’t want to battle through the Blog to the beginning.  

The content of this book varies from The Swimmer (1968), The Bedford Incident (1964),  Point Blank (1967) and The Venetian Affair (1966) to The Blue Max (1966), Ocean’s 11 (1960), The Fox (1967), The Lost Continent (1968), Pharaoh (1966) and Moment to Moment (1966). But “varies” is an understatement as it swings at random through every genre.

There is no particular logic to my selection of movies to review, just what happens to be handy or something I’ve taken a notion to see. Again, there are illustrations throughout.

Skip back a decade and you’ll come to my third book Paisley at the Pictures, Part III: 1952. As the title suggest, this is in fact a sequel. In fact, it’s a sequel to a sequel as the previous book in the series Paisley at the Pictures, 1951 embodied the word “sequel” in the title.

Paisley, in Scotland, in case you didn’t know, is a large town, only a few thousand bodies short of qualifying as a city, and at the time eight cinemas served a population of 93,000. Seating capacity for the octet was just over 13,000 so on a Saturday night -. given that moviegoing was hugely popular especially before the advent of television – there was no guarantee you would get a ticket to the movie of your choice.

Six of the picture houses showed first run and two second run. Few movies ran for six days, most theaters operating on a split-week basis, one program running Mon-Wed and another Thu-Sat. (Films only ran on a Sunday if it was a charity fund-raiser.) Most programs were double bills. But over 1200 films were screened. And since Paisley was way down the movie distribution food chain it was mostly showing pictures that were months or possibly years old. There was, in any case, no such thing as the global wide release seventy years ago and only in very rare instances anything approaching day-and-date.

Historically, the year was significant for it marked the introduction of the X-certificate and the Eady Levy, a form of tax rebate to encourage film production. Sci-fi boomed. B-pictures could still be guaranteed an audience, as could serials. And cinemas began to welcome, on occasion, foreign fare.

The top films of the year in Paisley were:  An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Show Boat (1951), Ivanhoe (1951), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), The African Queen (1951), The Quiet Man (1952), The World in His Arms (1952), Laughter in Paradise (1951) and Jungle Jim in the Forbidden Land (1952).

Except for the latter these chimed with the top movies shown that year or in 1951 in the rest of Britain and, for that matter, excepting the British-made movie, the United States.

But that was not the case for the most popular stars.

The Top Ten stars in Paisley were: Randolph Scott, Virginia Mayo,  Roy Rogers, Rod Cameron, Humphrey Bogart, Doris Day, Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Errol Flynn, and in joint tenth position Glenn Ford and Susan Hayward.  These rankings might come as a shock to anyone who takes the annual top tens published in the trade press as gospel. But I suspect there were as many local variations on the national scale elsewhere as here. The annual charts tended to flatten out local differences and favor stars who were more popular in bigger cities.

An appendix lists all the films shown in Paisley cinemas that year, by month and by venue. There are over 120 illustrations, some very rare, many drawn from my collection of Pressbooks.

Now, down to the sticky matter of cost. You’ll be delighted to hear that both the 1960s books cost, as they say, less than a cup of coffee. On Kindle both are priced at $2.99 (£2.34 at current exchange rates for British readers and the equivalent for other countries). Printed copies cost £10 (around $12). And if you want your printed copy signed, that can probably be arranged. Both are available on Amazon, Kindle and enlightened bookshops.

Due to the huge number of illustrations – over 120 – the Paisley book is not available on Kindle, only in book form and costs £10 (about $12). But I’m working on a Kindle edition that reduces the number of illustrations,

If you are not interested in buying the books themselves I would be grateful if you could, nonetheless, circulate the information.

But, of course, I probably don’t have to point out that they will make ideal Xmas presents.

Behind the Scenes: “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) – 60th Anniversary

As unlikely as it sounds, John Wayne was once the leading contender to play Lawrence of Arabia. On January 14, 1953, the trade newspaper Variety reported that Cinerama, only known at the time for travelogs, was planning to move into feature filmmaking with productions of the hit Broadway musical Paint Your Wagon and Lawrence of Arabia, the latter with Wayne in the frame. Cinerama, as discussed in a previous Blog, was the sensation of the 1950s, the saviour of a movie industry eroded by television, prompting the boom in big-budget widescreen movies that were the hallmark of the next two decades.

It was a three-screen process, which meant filming with three cameras, somewhat unwieldy for working with actors. But This Is Cinerama, its first film, was the top earning film of 1952, even though it only played in a handful of cinemas. The driving force behind the idea was assistant board chairman Lowell Thomas, who, more than 30 years before, had single-handedly created the legend of Lawrence of Arabia.

Thomas had been a journalist covering the Middle East during the First World War. He had photographed the triumphant entry into Jerusalem in 1918 of the British forces led by General Allenby. The following year Thomas spun this event into a lecture that was launched in August in London to sensational results. Originally it was entitled ‘With Allenby in Palestine’, but after sensing the public was more interested in the unknown T E Lawrence, who he had photographed in Arab headdress, he changed the name to ‘With Allenby in Palestine and With Lawrence in Arabia’.

The show was so successful that when it came to the end of its run at the Covent Garden theatre, the owners offered 70% of the box office receipts to keep it on. Eventually, over five million people in Britain and the United States paid to see the lecture. And the Lawrence of Arabia industry was born. Thomas turned his lecture into a book which appeared in 1924 followed three years later by A Boy’s Life of Colonel Lawrence. Lawrence himself contributed to the legend with the publication of The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom (1926) and a shortened, easier-to-read, version called Revolt In The Desert (1926). Various best-selling biographies followed including Lawrence Of The Arabs (1928) by Robert Graves (Goodbye To All That), two tomes by military historian Capt Basil Liddell Hart, T E Lawrence: In Arabia And After (1934) and Colonel Lawrence, The Man Behind The Legend (1934) and Reginald H Kiernan’s Lawrence of Arabia (1935).

The first film on the subject was announced in 1929 by director Sydney Olcott for Supremacy Films, but the project came to nothing. In 1933 there was a US four-part serial by Jock Lawrence (no relation) called Flying Lawrence In Arabia, based on the exploits of Lawrence’s pilot during the war, Capt John H Norton. Two full-length feature films were announced the same year. First out of the gate was The Uncrowned King from RKO to feature top Hollywood star John Barrymore. Director Ernest Schoendanck spent several months in Mesopotamia shooting background material and by the time he returned the film had a new name, Fugitive From Glory.

In Britain movie magnate Alexander Korda’s London Films put Lawrence Of Arabia into production with Walter Hudd in the lead. Korda had acquired the rights to the biographies by Graves, Liddell Hart and Kiernan as well as Revolt In The Desert and an agreement from Lawrence’s trustees to use incidents from The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. After seeing British actor Walter Hudd in the George Bernard Shaw play The Apple Cart, Lawrence had declared Hudd was his personal choice for the part. But Korda agreed to delay production until after Lawrence’s death.

That came sooner than anyone expected, in a motorcycle accident in 1935 and generated such enormous public demand in the adventurer that publisher Doubleday Doran printed a limited edition of only a dozen copies of Lawrence’s last unpublished 76,000-word book The Mint for sale at an astonishing $500,000 each. U.S. producer Sherman S. Krellberg planned a serial based on Lawrence and a play was written by Mary K. Brookes. Korda moved quickly, getting financial backing from the Bank of America, acquiring the rights to the Thomas book and taking on the author as a technical adviser. The film was to be directed by Korda’s brother, Zoltan, who spent months in Jerusalem scouting locations, with a $400,000 budget. It was going to be momentous for another reason – it was planned as the first British film in color. In preparation, Korda sent to Hollywood for 8,000 items of color make-up and Natalie Kalmus of Technicolor was dispatched from the U.S. to supervise the process.  

But it took another two years before Korda received the go-ahead from the UK government to film in Palestine, where there was political unrest. In the meantime, the first British color film had been released, Wings Of The Morning starring Henry Fonda. Hudd had been replaced by movie star Leslie Howard and Zoltan by U.S. director William K. Howard and the film was now being produced for Paramount. By then The Uncrowned King, produced now by Transamerica, had reached the screen, but only as a 10-part serial starring Lionel Atwill and with a 16-voice choir instead of an orchestra supplying the music. More importantly, the delay also allowed other U.S. studios to catch up.

Twentieth Century Fox dispatched director Otto Brower to Britain to begin a rival production and MGM was planning a film to star either Clark Gable or Paul Muni. In the end a Fox subsidiary New World became involved in the Korda film, but the project was called off after, it was rumored, severe government pressure. In 1938, the situation changed again. The sensation of the year was a claim by an Egyptian woman Nour Dahabi in Cairo to have found 3,500ft of film showing Lawrence on maneuvers in Arabia.  MGM teamed up with Gaumont-British. And it was all change for Korda. His Paramount deal hit the rocks and he switched to United Artists, returned later in the year to the original studio, only to go back to UA who promised an increased budget. But, of course, in 1939 the beginning of the Second World War scuppered everyone’s plans.

After the war. Korda’s rights to Revolt In The Desert lapsed and he did not renew them. The American studios also gave up. John Sutro, who had helped found London Films, took over and, resurrected the project in 1947 at Rank under the banner of his Ortus Films. Although Rank was the biggest film company in Britain, involved in film production and exhibition, the film languished in development hell until 1953 when Cinerama appeared on the scene. Lowell Thomas had been instrumental in setting up the company in conjunction with Michael Todd. Thomas was the public face of the process and when projectors broke down in the middle of a Cinerama film, a short starring Thomas would fill the screen until the problem was solved.

But, as ever, the minute one company announced a Lawrence project, more popped up. David Rose claimed he was close to concluding a deal for the rights to Revolt In The Desert. British-based Anatole De Grunwald had a script by top British playwright Terence Rattigan who had written David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1951).  

In 1953 De Grunwald did a deal with Paramount who wanted Gary Cooper or Gregory Peck, who bore a likeness to Lawrence, in the lead, while De Grunwald pressed for Richard Burton. In the end the John Wayne project was shelved.  By 1956 De Grunwald had approached American director King Vidor, and the film was due to roll in March 1957 but Vidor pulled out, Rank re-entered the equation, investing £2 million in a De Grunwald production with Anthony Asquith as directing Dirk Bogarde. In April 1958, Rank pulled the plug. Re-enter Twentieth Century Fox with Mark Robson helming.

But in July 1959 Columbia made a deal with Sam Spiegel and David Lean who had turned  Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)  into the studio’s biggest hit. Meanwhile, Rattigan had turned his screenplay into the play Ross with Alec Guinness in the title role. Spiegel targeted Marlon Brando for Lawrence with a start date of summer 1960.

Spiegel had hired blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson, incurring the wrath of Columbia. Lean hired playwright Robert Bolt (A Man For All Seasons) to rewrite it.  Meanwhile, Rank announced it had Alec Guinness for the lead.  

In July 1960 Brando pulled out. While Spiegel scoured Hollywood for a replacement, British producer Herbert Wilcox spent $364,000 on the rights to Ross with Laurence Harvey (Butterfield 8, 1960) to star. Lean went after British actor Albert Finney (Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, 1960) but the actor baulked at a long-term contract.  His replacement was unknown Irishman peter O’Toole.  Just as unknown, Omar Sharif was fifth choice for the pivotal role of Sherif Ali.

Filming was delayed until April 1961.  Oscar-winner Alec Guinness, albeit in a supporting role, was crucial to bring cachet to the picture. The presence of two other Oscar winners, Jose Ferrer and Anthony Quinn, bolstered the marquee.

Finally, filming got underway in May in Jordan, despite an incomplete script. But conditions were horrific. Swarms of locusts hampered transport, temperatures hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit,  the nearest water was 150 miles away. After a break, filming resumed in Spain on December 15 but Seville, chosen for its distinctive Arabian heritage, had just suffered the worst floods in a century, delaying production. The final location was Morocco and in July 1962 four planes flew 104 cast and crew there. Conditions there were as bad as in Jordan. After a few weeks in England, filming on the 313-day schedule ended on September 21, 1962. But with the world premiere set for December 10, it was panic all the way, especially after original composer Richard Rodgers of South Pacific fame quit.

Worse, ticket sales for the roadshow were poor, in part caused by the absence of a female in the cast. By mid-October sales for the U.S. opening stood at a paltry $11,424, compared to an advance of $700,000 for Exodus and $500,000 for How the West Was Won.

 The world premiere of Lawrence Of Arabia took place in front of Her Majesty the Queen on December 10 at the flagship Odeon Leicester Square in London’s West End. The American premiere occurred on December 16 at The Criterion in New York.

But the public and the critics responded. On its first Saturday in London with only two performances, it set a new one-day record of $7,200. The Criterion’s opening week in New York was $46,000 which Variety described as ‘little short of amazing.’ The film was edited shortly after  launch, the original prints cut by 20 minutes.

In the end it was both a box office and critical powerhouse, winning seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, making stars out of O’Toole and Sharif, and for the past 60 years being acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made.

Female Earnings – The Inconvenient Truth

Last week’s headline-grabbing articles about how few women featured in the rankings of top-earning movie stars, suggesting this was an age-old problem, overlooked one inconvenient truth. A century ago, actresses were the biggest earners in Hollywood.

In fact from Hollywood’s inception around 1910 and for the next sixty years actresses from Mary Pickford in the 1910s to Elizabeth Taylor either out-earned or equalled the male pay packets. I know. I wrote a book about it – When Women Ruled Hollywood (Baroliant, 2019). It was subtitled – “How Actresses Took on the Hollywood Hierarchy – and Won.”

The simple fact of the matter is that a woman – Florence Lawrence – in 1910 became the first Hollywood star, on the princely (or should I say princessly) salary of $50 a week, at a time when 77% of the female workforce survived on less than $7 a week. She was the equal highest-paid earner of the day.

Taylor earned $3 million for Cleopatra.

When movies began, movie stars were not as highly paid as those who worked on stage. But, again, women were by far the highest paid earners. The number one star in vaudeville – the U.S. version of music hall – was Gertrude Hoffman on, wait for it, $3,000 a week (about $90,000 equivalent now).  In 1911 the number one spot was shared – by two women. Sarah Bernhardt and Gaby Deslys now took home $4,000 a week. The following year Bernhardt was top dog again, on $9,000 a week and the next year again as the highest earner she pulled in $22,000 a week.

Movie stars of neither gender were earning that much but everyone knew what vaudeville stars earned so there was no shortage of precedent for actresses in the burgeoning movie business to ask for more. They employed a simple technique. They held studios to ransom. Give me more money or I jump ship.

In 1915, Mary Pickford broke all records for movie star earnings by taking in more than $150,000 a year. This was far more than male sensation Charlie Chaplin and even as his salary leapt upwards so did hers. In 1918 she picked up $1.8 million a year.

Despite the advent of top males in the 1920s of the calibre of Valentino, Lon Chaney, Tom Mix, Harold Lloyd and John Gilbert, women topped the earning chart once again. Gloria Swanson would have easily been the top-ranked earner had she accepted an offer of $18,000 a week but turned it down preferring to retain her independence. In her absence Corinne Griffiths came out of top with a $13,000 a week salary at First National.

Hepburn was on a cool $1 million per picture.

In the early 1930s Greta Garbo topped the heap with $500,000 a year – for a 40-week deal. In 1935 Mae West took home $480,000, not just the highest earner in the movies, but the second highest earner, $20,000 behind publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, in the whole of the United States.

In 1936, when Gary Cooper came top with Ronald Colman second, women occupying the next three spots. In 1937 when Fredric March took the top spot, women placed, second, third, four, fifth and sixth. In 1938 Claudette Colbert was number one and Irene Dunne the topper in 1939.

Bing Crosby topped the bill in 1940, and the next year it was Colbert again. The war inflicted a number of anomalies on the business, mainly the arrival from radio of Abbott and Costello, top earners in 1942, with Fred MacMurray, without even taking top billing in most of his films of the period, hitting the earnings peak for both 1943 and 1944.  Ginger Rogers was top in 1945, Joan Crawford in 1946 and except for a parachute payment to stop him leaving Warner Brothers Humphrey Bogart would have been pipped at the post by Bette Davis, with chanteuse Deanna Durbin top of the heap in 1948.

With demise of the studio system in the 1950s, female earnings tumbled except for Marilyn Monroe who ran top earners John Wayne and William Holden close. But in the 1960s Elizabeth Taylor out-earned everyone by a huge margin and Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day and Julie Andrews either earned or equaled the earnings of top male attractions like John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.

The advent of action pictures, which sold more easily around the world than comedies or dramas, ensured that from the 1970s onwards men mostly ruled the earnings game. But still stars like Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock held their own. And it was not so long ago that it was the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, thanks to The Hunger Games franchise, beat everyone.

You can buy my book on Amazon for about £10 and $12.

A Shameless Plug for My Books – Ideal Xmas Presents

With Xmas exactly a month away, now seems the right time to convince you that you should bombard your relatives/partners/friends with information about the books I have written so that as a movie lover you will receive a gift (or two) of a book about the movies. Some of my books cost just £6-£10 in print with less to pay generally for the Kindle version. I have priced the books below in English currency but they are available worldwide through Amazon/Kindle and in all major bookstores.

The Making of Lawrence of Arabia. Did you know John Wayne was in line to play the role when it was planned as Cinerama’s first drama in the early 1950s? There were about 20 different attempts over 40 years to get the film off the ground including when T.E. Lawrence himself marched into a producer’s office to sell the rights to his life story. Even though David Lean’s epic proved a commercial and critical triumph, right up to the movie’s launch it appeared that it was going to be a huge flop, with massive budget overruns. This book traces the origins of the Lean movie, analyses the picture and explains what happened afterwards when the director decided he hadn’t got it right first time and instituted the “Director’s Cut.” Oddly enough, secondhand copies sell on the Internet for up to £40 but you can get a genuine new copy for £8.99 and if you want the book signed ask the seller at the time. ISBN – 9781873586532

The Making of The Guns of Navarone (Revised Edition with over 30 Illustrations). William Holden, Cary  Grant and opera star Maria Callas in a film directed by Alexander Mackendrick (The Laveender Hill Mob, 1951)? That was one of the original ideas. Producer Carl Foreman, on the run from McCarthyism in America, shepherded the movie through crisis after crisis, stars rushed to hospital, directorial problems, huge sets collapsing, and the threat of being engulfed in a civil war. Analysis of film, screenplay and stars. This costs £10.89. Somebody in the States is selling this for $63 on the internet but you can get a brand new copy – signed by the author if you want – for the price mentioned above. ISBN – 9781909773028.

The Making of The Magnificent Seven (1960 obviously) is my all-time bestseller. The John Sturges western faced an actor’s strike, a writer’s strike, battles with Mexican censors, and went through half a dozen screenwriters. The first book-length study of the classic film. This is currently just £27.08 (reduced from £41) with the Kindle version just £9.39. ISBN – 978078696952

The Gunslingers of ’69 – Western’ Movies Greatest Year – examines the 40-plus westerns released that year including The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in the West, 100 Rifles, True Grit, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Stalking Moon and Support Your Local Sheriff and analyses the trend towards violence and female equality. This costs £34.50. ISBN  – 9781476679358

Away from my 1960s series I have written two books on aspects of Hollywood’s business history. Coming Back to a Theater Near You – A History of the Hollywood Reissue 1914-2104 is not just my biggest book – it weighs in at around 250,000 words including notes – but a massive bargain currently priced at a mere £13.04 – down from £45.  ISBN – 9780786498130.  In Theaters Everywhere – A History of the Hollywood Wide Release 1913-2017 costs £47.03.  ISBN – 9781476674148.

On a completely different note you might be interested in When Women Ruled Hollywood: How Actresses Took on the Hollywood Hierarchy and Won (1910-1948) in which I discovered that female stars were often paid far more than the males. This costs £9.97 for a printed copy and about half that for Kindle. ISBN – 9781909773165.

You might also be interested in The Glen Cinema Disaster, Paisley 1929, in which over 70 children died. At that time film itself was highly flammable and the book explains why Hollywood rejected new non-flammable types of film stock in favour of a product which cost thousands of lives across the world in a series of disasters. This costs £10. ISBN 9781909773035.

Please note all prices are indicative. Some books may be on special offer and when they are gone they’re gone. Prices don’t include postage. If you have problems getting hold of books or want a signed copy just contact me through the blog.

Behind the Scenes: “The Guns of Navarone” (1961)

It’s time to celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Guns of Navarone – world premiere on April 27, 1961, in London and New York opening on June 22, 1961. Although the picture set a new benchmark in high-octane entertainment, a fast-moving war thriller packed with twists and a genuine all-star cast, it was far – very far – from the sure thing it appears in retrospect.

Box office smash in Britain.

For a start, U.S producer Carl Foreman, a victim of the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunt of the early 1950s, was unable to assemble any of the talent he had set his heart on. He lost his preferred male cast of William Holden and Cary Grant and original scriptwriter Eric Ambler, the thriller writer famed for The Mask of Dimitrios and other novels.

He had a registered a major publicity coup by engineering the screen debut of opera diva Maria Callas, one of the most famous people in the world, but she also dropped out as did his other initial choice for leading lady. On top of that, once filming began he lost his director, Alexander Mackendrick, who had not only achieved a critical and commercial success with the British Ealing comedy The Ladykillers (1951) but also crossed the Atlantic to make the acclaimed The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, to prove he could handle big Hollywood stars.

On top of that David Niven nearly lost his life during production and by the time the picture appeared Gregory Peck had suffered so many box office flops that he was a potential liability. And Foreman’s own marriage was in trouble.

Building the massive guns set.

It was a wonder it was made at all for Foreman was nobody’s idea of a sure thing. Although he had made his name as a screenwriter with three Oscar nominations for Champion (1949), The Men (1950) and High Noon (1952), his career was in ruins after being slung out of America for his supposed communist sympathies. He set up in London where he wrote screenplays under pseudonyms. But in 1956 won a four-picture production deal with Columbia at a time when that studio was investing heavily in making films in Britain to take advantage of the government’s Eady Levy (effectively, a tax rebate) and cheaper costs. But his first film, The Key (1958) with William Holden and Sophia Loren flopped in the U.S. Columbia persevered, seeing Foreman as the man to tackle its biggest-ever European production.

The Guns of Navarone almost fell at the first hurdle. Foreman’s first choice of location was Cyprus which was threatening to erupt into a civil war. At the last minute, he changed his mind and shifted production to Rhodes. Foreman, who also acted as screenwriter, made considerable changes to the book by British bestselling thriller writer Alistair Maclean, not least of which was introducing female characters to a story that had been resolutely all-male.

Original hardback book cover.

There was tension on set – four-time Oscar nominee Gregory Peck was annoyed at sharing the screen with two winners David Niven (Best Actor for Separate Tables, 1958) and Anthony Quinn (twice Best Supporting Actor for Viva Zapata, 1952, and Lust for Life, 1956). Replacement director J. Lee Thompson (Ice Cold in Alex, 1958) managed to sink a ship on loan from the Greek navy.  The Actor’s Strike in Hollywood nearly forced the departure of the two younger stars.

The set for the titular guns was the largest ever built, costing £100,000, and even though that proved a design miracle, that, too, was not exempt from disaster, having to be rebuilt after a thunderstorm destroyed part of the set. The injury to David Niven was so severe he nearly died, putting the production in jeopardy. Even when the film approached completion there were other obstacles in the way, composer Dmitri Tiomkin (The Alamo, 1960), for example, demanding a record fee and Foreman locking horns with Columbia over his insistence on launching the picture as a roadshow, request which was ultimately denied, and one of the reasons for the film’ release delay,

I’ve written a book about The Making of The Guns of Navarone. Originally published in 2013, it has been revised with over 30 illustrations added for a new edition to tie in with the 60th anniversary – available both in print and Kindle versions. Needless to say, it would also make an ideal present for Father’s Day.

If you’re interested in this kind of book, you might like to know that I’ve also written The Making of The Magnificent Seven.

Books by Brian Hannan – “Paisley at the Pictures, The Sequel, 1951”

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.

Jane Wyman in Hitchcock’s Stage Fright.

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 beginnings of the sci-fi boom.

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.

Books by Brian Hannan – “Paisley at the Pictures 1950”

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.

Books by Brian Hannan – “Coming Back to a Theater Near You, A History of the Hollywood Reissue 1914-2014”

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 average price paid by television for movies by 1966 was $350,000-$400,000 so the $2million ponied up by ABC Television for two showings set by far a new high mark. the film made more again from television when put on the auction block again. ABC made a profit of $1 million when Ford paid $3 million to be the sole sponsor. the network and the sponsor were suitably reward when the television screening netted a record 60 million viewers.

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.

The success of Goldfinger (1964) had exhibitors crying out for repeat showings of the first two bonds. demand was such that United Artists were able to demand 60% of the box office – an extraordinary amount for a reissue. Only Mary Poppins, the Sound of Music, Goldfinger and My Fair Lady beat the combo at that year’s box office.

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.

Horror specialist American International surprisingly snapped up the reissue rights. It was originally shown with subtitles as a way of the censors trying to prevent cinemagoers more intent on the lascivious than artistic merit attending. It was dubbed into English for the reissue to make it more easily accessible and also to make it more attractive to television.

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.

Here’s the link to the podcast: https://anchor.fm/pete-turner9/episodes/The-HOMER-Network-podcast-episode-2-emmrcp

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