In the News Sixty Years Ago: April 1961

HOLLYWOOD CASHING IN ON EICHMANN TRIAL  

With the upcoming trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann dominating the media for weeks, and publishers enjoying a boom with titles on Eichmann and Hitler, and with Life magazine’s biggest issue so far in the year being one with Hitler on the cover, movie studios had at last wakened up to the opportunities. A Swiss documentary Mein Kampf was due to open as was Operation Eichmann and Stanley Kramer’s big-budget Judgement at Nuremberg with Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster heading an all-star cast. Also in the offing were a Hitler biopic from Allied Artists, Hitler’s Women, a movie based on John Hersey novel The Wall and French director Roger Vadim with an idea to update De Sade as a Nazi.

BRITISH STARS MAKE ‘EM LAUGH

At a time when the Steve Reeves musclemen pictures had dominated the foreign film market, nine British comedies had taken the U.S. by storm. While their box office figures were not colossal by U.S. standards, they were extremely hot compared to the numbers normally racked up at the American ticket wickets by British films. For the 1960 season the British beat all other foreign film contenders. A total of 135 British movies released generating $22.9 million in rentals, well ahead of the nearest rival Italy whose 116 pictures took in $12.2 million (rentals being what the studios received from the overall box office gross). Carry On Nurse was one of the hottest British comedies as well as The Mouse That Roared and I’m Alright, Jack both starring Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness in Our Man in Havana, and Ted Ray in Please Turn Over. Brigitte Bardot was single-handedly the biggest foreign attraction with eight movies on show.

KING AND I REISSUE FLOPS

Twentieth Century Fox had brought back The King and I (1956) in 70mm in its Grandeur format as a two-a-day roadshow at the upscale Rivoli in New York on March 23 only to discover that audiences would not bite and a week later it was shifted to “grind” (continuous performance). Meanwhile, Columbia was backing a revival of Picnic (1955) starring William Holden and Kim Novak, promising a new campaign and artwork.

FIRST PURPOSE-BUILT CINERAMA THEATER OPENS

Although the Cinerama phenomenon had been all the rage for nearly a decade, the movies had always been shown in specially-converted cinemas. Now the first purpose-built theater had opened, the Cooper, in Denver, Colorado, at a cost of $1 million with seating for 814.

TRIPLE NAME CHANGE FOR THE HUSTLER

The Robert Rossen movie featuring Paul Newman as a poolroom shark had already started filming in New York when it changed its title first to Stroke of Luck and then quickly to Sin of Angels and under that title – to confuse potential moviegoers – had snagged considerable coverage in Time, the New York Times and the New York Herald-Tribune before reverting back to the original title.

BARDOT BIOPIC

Although the French sex symbol had barely been a star for half a dozen years, she was already lining up a biopic to be directed by one of the leading New Wave exponents 28-year-old Louis Malle. Co-starring Marcello Mastroianni, it appeared as A Very Private Affair in 1962.

WB SHELLS OUT FOR CAMELOT

Six years before the Lerner and Loewe musical finally hit the screens, Jack Warner paid $1.5 million for the screen rights plus 25% of the net profits.

Sources: “New Nazi Beast Film Cycle” (Variety, April 5, 1961, p1); “British Humor Scores in the U.S.” (Variety, April 26, 1961, 1); “Hard Ducat Not For Reissue?” (Variety, April 5, 1961, p3); “Advert, Picnic” (Box Office, April 3, 1961, 10); “World’s First Theater Built Specially for Cinerama Opens in Denver” (Box Office, April 3, 1961, p28);  “Brave Young Director Faces Bardot Playing Herself in Her Own Biopic” (Variety, April 12, 1961, p1); “WB’s Camelot Buy” (Variety, April 12, 1961, p1).

Hollywood: A Fashion Accessory

The new documentary on Audrey Hepburn – the Queen of Chic – and my reference to the making of the Valley of the Dolls in “My Books of the Year” blog made me wonder just how important fashion had become to movie marketing in the 1960s. So I did some digging. And found that the this particular decade had indeed been a golden age for Hollywood fashion.

Although actresses had set fashion trends before  – Lana Turner’s turtleneck sweater as evening wear, for example, Marlene Dietrich in pants, Carole Lombard’s shirts and Greta Garbo’s pillbox hat while Warner Brother’s star Kay Francis was often in reviews referred to as a clothes-horse – fashion had not previously been given the hard sell. Throughout the 1960s, that was remedied.

The new attitude to fashion as a marketing tool was instigated after a piece of market research. In 1960 United States market research company Sindlinger carried out consumer investigation on behalf of Universal that came to the conclusion that women made up 58 per cent of the audience going to see seven of the top ten pictures. In consequence, the studio decided to target the female audience with a marketing approach that would specifically appeal to that gender, namely fashion. First picture to benefit from this change of direction was Doris Day vehicle Midnight Lace (1960). Universal was a step ahead of the rest but Paramount was soon leading the field thanks to the impact on female fashion made by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

Jean Seberg was a designer’s delight. Yves St Laurent designed the clothes for Moment to Moment (1966).

In 1962 Paramount celebrated the fact that Edith Head was the industry’s only full-time contracted designer by hosting a fashion show on the penthouse set of the studio’s Come Blow Your Horn (1963) starring Frank Sinatra.  The event was called “Edith Head’s Penthouse Party.” Being showcased were costumes from eleven of the designer’s current or forthcoming movies. The cheapest outfit on show cost just $2.89 (worn by Patricia Neal in Hud – known at the time as Hud Bannon)  while the most expensive (for Jill St John in Come Blow Your Horn) set the studio back $3,700. In total the studio spent $420,000 on costumes for the movies.

As well as the two films mentioned above, other pictures in the Edith Head portfolio given a marketing push because of her fashion input included Elvis Presley vehicle Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962) co-starring Stella Stevens, comedy Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963) with Jackie Gleason and Glynis Johns, comedy Who’s Got the Action (1962) headlining Dean Martin and Lana Turner, and France Nuyen as A Girl Called Tamiko (1962). Also involved were Jerry Lewis numbers It’s Only Money (1962) and The Nutty Professor (1963), John Wayne adventure Donovan’s Reef (1963), Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward romantic comedy Samantha (later renamed A New Kind of Love, 1963) and Debbie Reynolds in My Six Loves (1963).

The outfits were modelled by some of the film’s stars including St John, Stevens, Nuyen,  Barbara Rush and Phyllis Maguire (also from Come Blow Your Horn), Myoshi Umieti and Martha Hyer (also from A Girl Called Tamiko) and Elizabeth Allen (Donovan’s Reef). Also on hand were four Japanese models and a quartet of actresses making the transition from modelling –  Patricia Olsen who had a small part in Samantha, Pat Jones, Mary Morlas and Olavee Parsons.  John Wayne, David Janssen (My Six Loves) and Cesar Romero (Donovan’s Reef) also put in an appearance but drew the line at modeling.

However, the big commercial push for Hollywood fashions came from My Fair Lady (1964). The impact of the Hepburn look in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was accidental, rather than deliberate. But from the outset the bulk of the promotional activity for the Lerner and Loewe musical was based around the costumes designed by Cecil Beaton. Whether or not the public could afford such flamboyant outfits was not uppermost in the minds of fashion editors – what Hepburn wore was just so stunning and converted into fabulous editorial spreads, especially for the magazines and newspaper supplements which by this time were mainlining on color, that it created a tsunami of marketing material.

In 1967 costumes hit a commercial peak with a record $12 million budget in total allocated to wardrobes. A total of $8 million was spent on just 15 movies. Easily topping the list was musical Camelot (1967) at $2.25 million while Doctor Dolittle (1967) racked up $1 million, Star! (1968) $750,000 and Funny Girl (1968) $500,000. Three hundred fashion editors attended a fashion show at the Plaza Hotel in New York for a first glimpse of the clothes worn in Funny Girl.

One year earlier Universal had pushed the boat out marketing-wise for the outfits designed by Yves St Laurent for Jean Seberg in Moment to Moment (1966). That same year Warner Bros had focused on fashion for its promotion of the fashion-conscious Kaleidoscope (1966). Stars Warren Beatty and Susannah York might as well have been fashion models given the range of outfits they wore and the movie’s Pressbook claimed the clothes specially created for the picture were on the biggest selling-points for a movie in years especially as most “in” stores “know about the kicky, eye-arresting swingy ‘mod’ fashion clothes which are all the rage.”

Candice Bergen, a former model, caused a sensation in Paris – where she was shooting Vivre pour Vivre (1967) with Yves Montand – when she participated in the Dior show. Her unexpected appearance as well as the clothes she wore received huge publicity. Also in 1967, MGM took out a full-page advertisement in Variety to, among other things, proclaim the impact of Doctor Zhivago on female fashion – “the world is wearing the Zhivago look.”

Expenditure was not an issue. A red velvet cloak worn by Kim Novak in The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) cost an eye-popping $35,000 while Samantha Eggar’s fourteen costumes in Doctor Dolittle each cost between $7,000 and $14,000. The price of Vanessa Redgrave’s wedding dress in Camelot was $12,000.  Five gowns at a total of $17,000 made for Judy Garland for Valley of the Dolls (1967) were discarded when the actress was sacked and they did not fit replacement Susan Hayward.

Bonnie and Clyde had initially flopped in the U.S. so there was no great demand for Theodora van Runkle’s outfits. The film’s fashion craze started in London where it proved an unexpected hit. There, fashion house Matita launched a Bonnie outfit which caught on. But Stateside when the Bonnie look was widely adopted it was primarily because it was cheap to copy – a mid-calf skirt, thick-seamed stockings and the white beret not hard to replicate.

But it wasn’t just female fashions that benefitted from movie spinoffs. Male fashions seen in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) were adapted for commercial retail use by Geoffrey Beane and Donald Brooks, who were so convinced (mistakenly) that the movie would be a hit straight off the bat that the clothes appeared on racks long before the movie was released and the pair had to wait until the next year before demand for the movie turned into interest in its fashion.

In fact, men had always been a part of fashion marketing for the movies. Even a film as male-oriented and action-filled as The Guns of Navarone (1961) was given a fashion slant as a means of attracting a female audience – as I discovered when writing a book on the making of the film. “Navarone Blue” – was officially adapted by the British Colour Council while “Navarone Gold” was developed for the Colour Association of the United States. Both dyes were marketed to the manufacturers of automobiles, interior design and fabrics such as bedspreads. Grecian fashion was sold in 50 department stores including Macy’s. And it was written into the contracts of all the female stars that they wear clothes of either colour at premieres.

Lee Marvin had become an unlikely fashion icon and to take advantage of this new status MGM set up “coast-to-coast” promotions for Point Blank (1967). Highlander Clothes developed a fashion line as a marketing tie-up with over 60 stores from all over the country participating. Alcatraz – where part of the movie was filmed – was the location for a fashion shoot that went out in a three-page layout to the 20 million readers of Life magazine under the heading “Well-Dressed Moll Styles in Alcatraz.”

At the end of the decade another male-oriented picture, Downhill Racer (1969), was sold via a fashion marketing campaign. Steve McQueen, the epitome of cool, became a hook for fashion marketing, especially after The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) while Eli Wallach was an unlikely male model in upmarket male magazines. Earlier, for another male-dominated story, Seven Days in May (1964), director John Frankenheimer had been pictured wearing a Cardinal custom-made suit in an ad in Gentleman’s Quarterly. More in keeping with old-fashioned publicity gimmickry, for that film Paramount had also hired designer Mollie Parnis to create a suit for women that could be worn seven different ways on seven different days.

SOURCES: “Women Biggest Picture-Goers, So U Laces Midnight Campaign with Fashions,” Variety, Sep 7, 1960, 16 ; “Fashion Omnibus On 11 Features, By Edith Head,” Variety, Oct 31, 1962, 18; “H’wood Fashions Boom Year,” Oct 4, 1967, 5 ; “Paris Fashions – 1967,” Variety, Feb 15, 1967, 2; advertisement, Doctor Zhivago, Variety, Jan 4, 1967, 37.; Pressbook, Kaleidoscope; Pressbook, Point Blank; Pressbook, Seven Days in May; Brian Hannan, The Making of the Guns of Navarone (Baroliant, 2013) p153-154; Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater near You (McFarland 2016) p186. 

Sixty Years Ago – Xmas at the Movies

Setting aside the unusual circumstances of this year, we can generally count ourselves lucky these days – taking 2019 as a more standard example – if we are able to have five or six new films opening around Xmas. Hogging the limelight in the weekend before Xmas in 2109 was Star Wars Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker – the last in the current trilogy and the final part of the saga which had begun nearly half a century before – and which took the box office crown by a considerable distance from the weekend’s only other wide release opener, misconceived musical Cats. On the weekend after Xmas the wide release top spots were held by Greta Gerwig’s remake of Little Women with Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson plus animated feature Spies in Disguise while in much smaller openings were Sam Mendes future Oscar-winner 1917 and crime drama Just Mercy with Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.

That was far from the case sixty years ago. In 1960 three times as many movies opened during the festive season. A total of 18 movies were launched before, during and just after Xmas Day.

In that era, of course, the wide release was effectively in its infancy so most films would usually open in one cinema on Broadway (though a few combined that with a showing in a smaller first-run arthouse elsewhere in the city) in New York and single cinemas in the center of other major cities. The success of Ben-Hur (1959) had lit a fire under the roadshow and the arrival of these behemoths would begin a process that would see several cinemas out of commission as regards new pictures for several months of the year. Even so, regardless of how films were released, cinemagoers had a far wider choice at Xmas in 1960.

In the week before Xmas (starting December 21, 1960) all eyes in New York were focused on the roadshow opening of Otto Preminger’s Exodus starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint. United Artists had sunk colossal amounts into the picture. But it was competing at the box office with another SEVEN new big-time openings – more than opened during the entire Xmas period in 2019.

Two Elvis Presley pictures opened on the same day in New York – Paramount’s G.I. Blues and the western Flaming Star directed by Don Siegel from Twentieth Century Fox. Disney also chose that day to launch its spectacular Swiss Family Robinson. In addition, there was Jerry Lewis in comedy Cinderfella, fantasy adventure The 3 World of Gulliver, British comedy Make Mine Mink with Terry-Thomas and Stanley Donen’s romantic comedy The Grass is Greener with a topline cast of Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons.

In addition, some big-name stars were attached to movies that opened on December 21 in the smaller arthouses. Ronald Neame’s military drama Tunes of Glory with Oscar-winning Alec Guinness feuding with John Mills broke the box office record at the Little Carnegie. Sophia Loren and Maurice Chevalier headlined A Breath of Scandal, directed by Michael Curtiz. Also setting up shop in the arties were Roy Boulting’s  British comedy A French Mistress with Cecil Parker and James Robertson Justice, French veteran Jean Gabin in Rue de Paris and another French film Sins of Youth.

To avoid being trampled in the rush MGM held off another day before unveiling comedy  Where the Boys Are starring Yvette Mimieux, Paula Prentiss, Dolores Hart and George Hamilton.  Then, as now, Xmas Day was an important day in the release calendar, reserved for the brave (or the foolish) since it generally took a very special picture to opt for that slot. In 1960, two  very big fish made their play.  First up was MGM’s roadshow remake of the 1931 Oscar-winning western Cimarron this time round directed by Anthony Mann and starring the ever-dependable  Glenn Ford opposite French star Maria Schell. The city ‘s biggest cinema, the legendary Radio City Music Hall, was turned over to Fred Zinnemann’s Australian drama The Sundowners pairing Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr.

Two days later it was the turn of the final roadshow of the year Pepe with Cantinflas and an all-star international cast including Maurice Chevalier and Bing Crosby. Rounding out the Xmas season on December 28 came Bob Hope-Lucille Ball comedy The Facts of Life.

Films that had opened pre-Xmas had to show exceptional box office stamina in order to be kept on in their cinemas in the face of this onslaught of new films. Heading up that list, of course, was Ben Hur, now in its second year on Broadway. Spartacus starring Kirk Douglas was entering its eleventh week, John Wayne’s The Alamo its ninth, and Elizabeth Taylor incendiary drama Butterfield 8 its sixth.

Astonishing to think of the overwhelming choice offered to moviegoers then compared with the sparse selection these days.  

Follow That Nurse – What a Carry On

British critics hated the “Carry On” films until late in the decade Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) hit a satirical note. Critics felt the movies pandered to the lowest common denominator and were a poor substitute for the Ealing comedies which had given Britain an unexpected appreciation among American comedy fans.

It was a well-known fact the comedies did not always travel. Apart from Jacques Tati, the more vulgar French comedies featuring the likes of Fernandel were seen as arthouse fare. Unless they featured a sex angle or the promise of nudity, coarse Italians comedies struggled to find an international audience. The “Carry On” films were bawdy by inclination without being visually offensive

Carry On Sergeant (1958), the first in the series, had been a massive success in Britain. Distributors Anglo-Amalgamated was so convinced it would find a similar response in the U.S. that it was opened in New York at a first run arthouse. Although the comedies were hardly standard arthouse fare, this was generally the route for low-budget British films.  The picture lasted only three weeks and other exhibitors taking that as proof of its dismal prospects ignored it. 

The follow-up Carry On Nurse (1959) took an entirely different route when launched in America in 1960. This time New York would be virtually the last leg of its exhibition tour.  Instead it opened on March 10 at the 750-seat Crest in Los Angeles. Away from the New York spotlight, the little movie attracted not just good notices but decent audiences.

Instead of being whipped off screens after a few weeks, it developed legs. In Chicago it ran for 16 weeks in first run before transferring to a further 50 theaters. Within a few months of opening it had been released in 48 cities. In Minneapolis it was booked as a “filler” at the World arthouse, expected to run a week and no more. Instead, it remained for six weeks and when it shifted out to the nabes out-grossed Billy Wilder’s big-budget comedy The Apartment (1960) with a stellar cast of Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine.

In its fourth month at the 600-seat Fox Esquire in Denver where it opened in May, it set a new long-run record for a non-roadshow picture. It had been taking in a steady $4,000 a week since opening.

SOURCES: “How To Nurse a Foreign Pic That’s Neither Art nor Nudie: Skip N.Y.,” Variety, Aug 24, 1960, 3; “British Carry On Nurse A Sleeper in Mpls With Long Loop Run, Nabe Biz,” Variety, Aug 24, 1960, 18;

Book into Film – Elleston Trevor’s “The Flight of the Phoenix”

British novelist Elleston’s Trevor’s The Flight of the Phoenix (published in 1964) was a lean 80,000 words, a far cry from the blockbuster airport reads like Exodus by Leon Uris and James Michener’s Hawaii. But its length made it an ideal subject for a film, the shorter novel tending to stick close to the main story. The author’s speciality was authentic detail, an early career as a racing driver and flight engineer inspiring in him a love for all things mechanical. He knew what made things work and gaps in his knowledge were filled by assiduous research. He was an assiduous man, with 36 books since 1943 under ten pseudonyms, one being Adam Hall whose bestselling spy tale The Berlin Memorandum would be filmed as The Quiller Memorandum (1966). He had tackled aviation before, most prominently in Squadron Airborne (1955). But it’s worth comparing how this book was translated to the screen compared to The Berlin Memorandum, which, as discussed in a previous review, owed much of its screen personality to intervention by playwright Harold Pinter.

The film follows the book’s structure with only a couple of deviations. The main one was changing the nationality of the aircraft designer from British to German. Originally named Stringer he was a testy young individual prone to taking offence and going off in big sulks. There was a German in the Trevor version, Kepel, a young man who is injured in the crash. But there was no handy doctor on board and fewer different nationalities. To build up James Stewart as the heroic pilot and as a consequence to add meat to his clash with German designer Hardy Kruger, in the film he bravely goes out into the desert to find one of the passengers, but that does not occur in the book. Other changes were minor – in the book the passengers are occasionally able to supplement their drinking rations by scraping night frost off  the plane and at a later point in the book they drain the blood from a dead camel in order to dilute their drinking water. While there is an encounter with Arab nomads in both book and film, the movie’s approach to this incident is much more straightforward, ignoring some of the detail supplied in the book.  

Of course, a novel allows for the inclusion of far greater detail. And while that provides the skeleton for story development, Trevor gives greater insight into the characters than can be achieved on screen. The author allows each character an internal monologue, through which device we discover their motivations, history and fears. This approach combines the present with the past, presenting a more rounded cast of characters. While the inherent tension of the situation drives the story along, the author switches between characters to keep the reader fully engaged. The cowardly sergeant (played by Ronald Fraser in the film) is the biggest beneficiary, portrayed as a more sympathetic person than in the film. The book is a stand-alone enjoyment, Trevor’s writing skills, his grasp of character, creation of tension and his  engineering knowledge (bear in mind he invented the idea of building another plane out of the wrecked one) make the novel every bit as enthralling as the film.  

What the Exhibitor Did

Movie studio publicity teams bombarded exhibitors with gimmicky promotions via the Pressbooks used to publicize movies. Some of the ideas were so outlandish it is easy to imagine that exhibitors’ eyes glazed over at the prospect.

But that would be to misunderstand the character of the cinema manager/owner on the 1960s. They often referred to themselves as “showmen” (ignore the gender slip) because they saw themselves as hustlers of the old school, required to come up with all sorts of schemes to ensure moviegoers were aware of what was showing.

So they weren’t short of coming up with their own ideas.  To promote Billy Wilder comedy The Apartment (1960) with Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine, Loews State in New Orleans set up a replica three-room apartment within the Hurwitz-Minze furniture store in the city. A female model was hired to live there for a week during opening hours. She cooked, washed dishes, watched television and listened to records. “Her daytime routine was complete even to changing her clothes – behind a screen, of course.” The store advertised her presence daily and explained why there was model in the window. The Monteleone Hotel joined in the promotion by providing the model with free accommodation.

Handcuffs were handed out to customers going in to see Psycho (1960) at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady, New York, on the basis that it would be advantageous for patrons to handcuff themselves to their seats in case nerves got the better of them and they tried to dash out before the end.

Of course, that was a long way from offering patrons a dead body, raffled off in the intermission between the movies on a midnight horror program, as carried out by the Super 422 Drive-In in Pittsburgh. A dead body was given away – it just turned out to be a turkey.

Exhibitors pushing a horror picture might plant a coffin in the lobby – more effective if there was a hand sticking out – or, as indicative of the terrors that lay ahead, have a white-coated nurse prominently positioned or park an ambulance outside. Certificates of bravery might be issued to attendees.

To promote Macumba Love (1960) – starring Ziva Rodann from The Giants of Thessaly – which featured cannibals and shrunken heads, Loews State in Cleveland put their own shrunken head on display in the lobby behind reducing glass which made it seem even smaller.   

Love takes people the strangest places. Two cycling enthusiasts planning to get married were persuaded by Twentieth Century Fox to travel from New York to Juneau, Alaska, a mere 4,776 miles to promote john Wayne picture North to Alaska (1960).They were paid, of course, and had the honor of being married by the Governor of the state, William Egan. They passed through a hundred towns and cities, stopping off to talk to interested media about their unusual adventure and, in case anyone missed the point, their bikes were plastered with publicity material for the film.

SOURCES: “The Midnight Show,” Box Office, Aug 1, 1960, p64-65; “Girl Keeps House in Window for a Week Prior to Opening of The Apartment,” Box Office, Aug 8, 1960, 118; “Handcuffs Go to Patrons in Advance of Psycho,” Box Office, Oct 3, 1960, 103; “Couple in Bicycle Trip North for To Alaska,” Box Office, Nov 14, 1960, 73.

Nun but the Brave

Setting aside its impact on popular culture and the Austrian tourist industry, The Sound of Music was also responsible for bringing nuns – an admittedly small sub-genre – back into fashion.

Of course, there had been some big hitters getting into the box office habit in the past, most notably The Bells of St Mary’s (1945) with Ingrid Bergman, Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus (1947), Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949), Kerr again in a rather more resourceful mode opposite Robert Mitchum in war drama Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1957) and Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story (1958). All four actresses (Kerr in the second outing) were Oscar-nominated. But none of the films ushered in a rush of wannabes.

The Sound of Music was viewed as directly responsible for putting nine projects on the starting grid. Leading the charge was Debbie Reynolds as The Singing Nun (1966), MGM’s biopic of the Belgian sister Dominique whose records topped the charts. Columbia chipped in with The Trouble with Angels (1966), directed by Ida Lupino and headlining Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills, which spawned a sequel also with Russell Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968).

Both were neck-and-neck at the Easter 1966 box office, The Singing Nun having the edge in New York since it opened at the 6,200-seat Radio City Music Hall, where it set a new seasonal record, but the Russell-Mills vehicle more than matched it in other cities.

Nuns also featured in Billy Wilder comedy The Fortune Cookie (1966) with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Italian comedy The Little Nuns starring Catherine Spaak also benefitted from the upsurge of interest in nuns, earning a late November 1965 release when it was already two years old.

Also in the pipeline producer Ross Hunter was prepping The Heaven Train for Universal from a screenplay by James Lee Barrett (Shenandoah, 1965). Carlo Ponti had wife Sophia Loren in mind to star in Mother Cabrini, about the first American saint. Rhonda Fleming had been announced as the female lead for The Nuns in the Sports Car, an independent film to be made in Paris.

On the foreign horizon was French director Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse (1966) – released in the United states as The Nun – starring Anna Karina. Luis Bunuel, who had already ventured into this territory with Viridiana (1961), was developing a Mexican picture also to be called The Nun. But La Religieuse hit censor trouble in France where it was initially banned but eventually set the box office wheels spinning at home and in the United States.

While Sally Fields in television’s The Flying Nun (1968) and the Russell Angels sequel kept the pot boiling, producers continued showing interest in films featuring nuns later in the decade. Two Mules for Sister Sara – written by Budd Boetticher and originally slated to be directed by him – was greenlit by Universal in 1967 although not hitting screen until three years later. Mary Tyler Moore played a nun opposite Elvis Presley in Change of Habit (1969) and Robert H. Solo signed a deal in 1969 to make The Devils for United Artists, although, that, too would take a couple of years to surface.

Note: not all these films finally saw the light of day – those with no year specified mentioned ended up shelved.

SOURCES: “Nuns Back In Film Fashion,” Variety, Dec 8, 1965, p11; “Films Sister Act: Or Nun-Such B.O,” Variety, Apr 20, 1966, 22; “Nun Might Go to Cannes,” Variety, Apr 20, 1966, 20;  “Beauregard’s Nun Gets Box Office Religion,” Variety, Sep 27, 1967, 18;  “Prostitute Pose: Nun Was Boetticher Screenplay and Now Universal,” Variety, Oct 4, 1967, 1; “Bob Solo’s 3 for UA,” Variety, Aug 20, 1969, 5.

In the News – August 1960

CLEOPATRA VERSION ONE

Producer Walter Wanger headed for Britain to oversee the start of production for Twentieth Century Fox’s Cleopatra. Before the movie was bogged down in illness and budget scandals, Elizabeth Taylor’s co-stars in this initial version were Stephen Boyd, fresh from Ben-Hur, and Peter Finch.  Wanger was mulling over taking the production to Egypt where he also intended to film the adaptation of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine. Rouben Mamoulian was the director of Cleopatra. Durrell had written the screenplay for this version. Fox was promising the movie would be on screens in June 1961. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, at this point down as writer of Justine, would later end up in charge of Cleopatra version two with Richard Burton and Rex Harrison replacing Boyd and Finch.

HITCHCOCK FESTIVAL

Although Alfred Hitchcock Festivals would become one of the major reissue talking points of the 1980s and while Rebecca (1940) had been successfully revived in the 1950s, the director’s first major commercial – as opposed to arthouse – retrospective was in the planning stage courtesy of David O. Selznick. He had in mind a rotating double bill based around three features to which he owned the rights – Spellbound (1945) with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, Notorious (1946) with Bergman and Cary Grant and The Paradine Case (1947) with Peck and Ann Todd. The project would be marketed as an “Alfred Hitchcock Festival.” Interest in the director was at all-time high after the double whammy of the previous year’s North by Northwest and current box office sensation Psycho. The fact that all three movies had already been shown on television was not seen as a deterrent. Selznick aimed to use as a promotional tool that moviegoers could see the pictures without irritating commercial breaks and on a much larger screen than television would afford.

IN THE PIPELINE

Montezuma was scheduled as Kirk Douglas’s follow-up to Spartacus with a budget in excess of the $12 million spent on the slave revolt epic. John Huston would pen the script and director. Douglas would play Cortez with Marlon Brando being wooed for the title role… Darryl F. Zanuck was setting up The Day Christ Died based on the Jim bishop bestseller in competition to George Stevens’ planned The Greatest Story Ever Told… Steve McQueen was planning to make The Captain under his own production company with Henry Fonda and Ernest Borgnine playing major parts… In fact, only The Day Christ Died ever saw light of day and  then only as a television film in 1980.  

IN OTHER NEWS

Critic Bosley Crowther declared war on subtitles, an unusual move for a writer long considered a purist where foreign movies were concerned…Pope John XXIII ordered a permanent projection room with air conditioning to be installed in the Vatican on the third floor of the Apostolic Palace because he liked movies more than his predecessor…La Dolce Vita was the top grossing film of the 1959-1960 Italian season with $1.125 million, well ahead of the closest runner-up Some Like it Hot with $725,000…Universal ordered a record fifty 70mm prints for SpartacusCharlton Heston was announced as El Cid for the forthcoming Samuel Bronston production…John Wayne held a sneak preview of The Alamo at the 900-seat Aladdin theater in Denver on August 5 with Can-Can kicked off the screen for the night…U.S. movie receipts were up for the first time in five years with the week of July 30 1960  the best since August 4 1956…In Britain, Hercules broke records in 36 of the 39 cinemas in its initial playoff.

SOURCES: “Wanger to Britain as Cleopatra and Justine Both May Shoot in Egypt,” Variety, Aug 3, 1960, p3; “Selznick Plotting Hitchcock Festival,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 7; “Kirk Douglas Outlines Plans for Mexican Biopic on Montezuma’s Life,” Variety, Aug 3, 1960, 4; “Zanuck Signs Gallico to Write The Day Christ Died,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 10; “Reisner-McQueen- Elkins Co-produce Captain,” Variety, Aug 17, 1960, 4; “Crowther’s Subtitles Must Go Stirs Trades, Uh-Huh but on the Other hand,” Variety, Aug 17, 1960, 4; “Vatican Getting Its Own Projection Room,” Variety, Aug 13, 1960, 13; “Italo Film in sharp Upbeat at ’59-’60 B.O.,” Variety, Aug 24, 1960, 11; “UI’s Big 70M Print Order for Spartacus,” Variety, Aug 24, 1960, 13; advertisement, El Cid, Variety, Aug 3, 1960, 16; “Wayne Sneaks Alamo,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 5; “Pictures $82,831,000 Take for Week Jul 30 Best Since Aug 4 1956,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 3; “Hercules Sets 36 New House Records out of 39 Spots in England,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 10.

The “Psycho” Revolution

It wasn’t just that Alfred Hitchcock broke all the rules in Psycho, turning horror on its head with the shower scene, introducing themes like mother-fixation and cross-dressing and delivering the first bona fide serial killer to American audiences.

He also took on the exhibition business by insisting that nobody was allowed into theaters after the film had started.

This went completely against the way films were normally shown. Patrons were accustomed to entering a movie theater whenever they liked, be it beginning, middle or end and then staying on till they came to the section they had seen before. Hitchcock was effectively calling an end to this practice.

Exhibitors were so used to customers going to the movies as a matter of course, as a regular habit, that few cinemas outside of arthouses and those in city centers even bothered to list start times. Although tacitly endorsed by exhibitors, this system was a menace to business since there was no way of knowing how many people were likely to vacate their seats at any given time and the fact that they did so intermittently interrupted the viewing of those still watching the picture.

Exhibitors were already investigating new methods of keeping their customers, including setting up their own production companies and buying up old films to present as reissues to make up for the shortage of new movies.

The Psycho “see it from the beginning” gimmick was initially viewed as exactly that – a gimmick. But when customers obliged without any particular fuss, standing patiently in line in the lobby or outside while one show vacated, this seemed to many indicative of a change in audience perspective. Many exhibitors wanted to take advantage of the potential to change moviegoing habits.  

“A new concept in motion picture promotion – building appreciation of the merchandise by customers – is being undertaken by segments of the industry,” said Hy Hollinger in Variety. “The idea involves a revolutionary change in the presentation of films in theaters with the industry engaging in a vast educational campaign to indoctrinate the public.”

“The public must be taught to accept starting times,” became a mantra. A more orderly approach would lead to greater appreciation of the films being screened. For once, America wanted to follow the Europe. A system of fixed schedules operated in Europe.

There were already “significant signs that the public prefer to see pictures from the beginning.” Exhibitors had registered more telephone calls asking about start times and more tickets were being sold just prior to the film beginning.

The Psycho sensation had kicked off another experiment. The film was being shown in New York nabes concurrent with its ninth week in first run at the DeMille and Baronet theaters in Manhattan. Usually, films were clear of first run commitments before launching on the circuits.   

And there were yet other changes afoot. Two circuits in New York – Loews and Century – had shifted back the start time of the main feature from 10pm by an hour or more, in the case of Century to a fixed 8.40pm which allowed moviegoers to get home in time for the eleven o’clock news. New York also led the way in combining first run in big Broadway houses with a concurrent booking in an eastside arthouse – Sons and Lovers (the only genuine arthouse offering), Psycho and Portrait in Black among those benefitting from the practice.

In addition, Psycho was considered responsible for another psychological phenomenon. It was asserted by Paramount publicists that the long lines of people standing outside the theater waiting to see the film “plants in people who had no desire to see the picture the seeds of desire to do so.”

Eroding the double bill mentality was also seen as a way of setting a more rigid approach of start times. The double bill was already under pressure because the number of movies being made was much lower than a decade before. Some theaters had taken to augmenting a single bill with a 30-minute short rather than a full feature.

Arthouse audiences had already accepted that the price of their ticket entitled them to only one movie, not two. Single bills allowed a theater more showings during the day, thus increasing potential receipts. When Psycho went into the circuits it was as a single bill with five or six showings scheduled.  

The roadshow was still in its infancy, Ben-Hur and a handful of other films leading the way, although spectacles like Spartacus, Exodus and The Alamo were on the horizon. Roadshows were presented as separate performances so no waste of seating capacity.

Roadshows and a film like Psycho had something else in common that augured well for a future where “grind” was eliminated. People accepted separate performances for roadshow or an uncommonly attractive feature like Psycho because they wanted specifically to see those particular pictures, not because they routinely went to the movies with little regard for what was actually being shown.

In just 38 weeks in a limited number of theaters presenting the picture in a limited number of showings at a set start time, Ben-Hur had already taking $7 million at the box office.  At Loew’s State in New York it had rolled up $1.2 million, in Los Angeles crossed the million-dollar mark and close to that figure in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Psycho was on the way to being one of the biggest grossers of the year.

With Hollywood still battling the encroaching threat of television, and television beginning to snare the first tranche of 1950s movies, it appeared that exhibitors had found a way of guaranteeing survival. But whether these new ideas would be sustained was another story.

SOURCES: Hy Hallinger, “1960 Reasoning: Teach Appreciation, Prepare Public for Single Feature European-Style Fixed Schedules,” Variety, Aug 3, 1960, p3; Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere, A History of the Hollywood Wide Release 1913-2017 (McFarland, 2019), 117-134; “May Shift Main Feature Hour,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 13; “Gotham Playoff Revolution,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 13; “Re Broadway & Eastside Day-Dating,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 13; “Is a Queue Itself Best Form of Sell?,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 13.  

Hollywood vs. The Law

A week or so back a momentous decision probably passed you by. The United States Government repealed the Paramount Consent Decree of 1948. That was the law that forced studios to shed their chains of theaters. The unforeseen result was that it ended the studio system on which Hollywood had based its operational model, threw thousands of actors and hundreds of directors out of work and put the business in financial jeopardy for over a decade. Why it took so long for the Government to change its mind is anybody’s guess.  

By the 1960s it was clear the Government’s action had been, to say the least, misguided. Without the guaranteed profits from exhibition, Hollywood could not afford to make so many pictures. And with no financial interest in exhibition, studios no longer felt any obligation to provide picture houses with the three or four hundred a year that some required to survive.

It only took 15 years for legal minds to consider a rethink. When, in 1963, the second largest theater chain in the country –  National General – decided to take a stab at making movies, it was granted a three-year window to do so. National General, which had bought up half the Twentieth Century Fox circuit in 1951 and now also owned real estate and supplied equipment for concerts, set up Carthay Center Productions with a four-picture slate including Divorce American-Style.

The only people who objected to this development were the studios. The exhibitors who had been the driving force to get the Paramount Decree over the line welcomed the move. And for a simple reason – the collapse of the old Hollywood system had seen a substantial drop in output. There were not enough pictures to go round. Worse, the shortage meant the movies that were being made took much longer to reach the hinterlands. Big city center theaters held on to movies for far longer than when there had been more pictures to choose from. The arrival of roadshow had exacerbated the problem, tying up the biggest cinemas for months at a time thus preventing ordinary films from being released.

Prior to National General, there had been a few low-budget or regional attempts by cinema owners to enter production business, but not at a sufficient level to alarm Government. Howco, which owned 60 theaters, made a small number of B-films like Jail Bait (1954) and Girl with an Itch (1958). McLendon Theaters, which also owned a radio station, made the low-budget The Killer Shrews (1959 and My Dog Buddy (1960) mainly as a filler for its own cinemas.  

It took more than three years for National General to get its act together and required a further three-year waiver, granted in 1966, going on to fund Divorce American-Style (1967) and Gregory Peck western The Stalking Moon (1968) among others.  CBS Television entered the production arena with Cinema Center and carved out a deal with NGC that greenlit  John Wayne in Rio Lobo (1970) and Big Jake (1971), Lee Marvin in  Monte Walsh (1970), Pocket Money (1972) and Prime Cut (1972), and Steve McQueen in The Reivers (1969), Le Mans (1971) and Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972).

Meanwhile, American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres, the largest circuit in America, had  already bypassed the strictures of the decree with a quartet of low budget films such as The Beginning of the End (1957) and Eighteen and Anxious (1958) before setting up the more ambitious ABC Pictures in 1965, its first production Good Times (1967) followed by pictures as diverse as Charly (1968), The Straw Dogs (1971), Robert Aldrich’s The Grissom Gang (1971), historical epic The Last Valley (1971), Ingmar Bergman drama The Touch (1971) and Oscar-winning musical Cabaret (1972). ABC also owned Palomar which made The Killing of Sister George (1968), Shalako (1968), and The Stepford Wives (1975).

The 1948 Decree, the result of embittered exhibitors egging on ambitious politicians, was probably the craziest decision the Government made in over 30 years of interference in the movie business. The first bit of interference was theoretically justified – the antitrust action of 1914. But the background to this was at the very least murky. The companies that actually invented the film and equipment from cameras to projectors realized a) that their patents could easily be pirated and b) that they could potentially be excluded from the massive revenues their ideas had created. As the business swiftly changed more money was being from exhibition than production.

Initially, movies were shown in peepshows in America, individual booths where the customer inserted a coin and saw flickering images for a few minutes. The booth owner would buy the movie outright. But then they came to realize that once interest in that particular movie had died away they would be left with a dud. So someone came up with the idea of renting movies rather than selling them outright. This was, in effect, a film library. These were called exchanges. The theater owner would rent a movie one week and take it back the next and pay far less than it cost to purchase a movie outright.

A group of manufacturers – known as the General Film Company – created a consortium and set about buying up all the exchanges. This would have resulted in a monopoly of distribution. And if the distributors were also the producers then they could guarantee that exchanges gave priority to the movies their companies. 

One exchange owner challenged this in court. And won. That was the first anti-trust action against the industry and technically not against the Hollywood arm of film-making since Hollywood had not been invented at that point with most movies being made around New York.

Then, in sweet irony, exchange owners and exhibitors worked out that the GFC was right – you had to control all aspects of the business. Vertical integration became the basis of the Hollywood system. Studios made movies, distributed the movies through their own exchanges and owned chains of cinemas. In the 1920s a lot more money was made from exhibition than production, in part because rental percentages were heavily weighted in favor of the exhibitor.

No studio actually had a nationwide chain, they tended to be strong in a region, and the number of cinemas they owned was far from being monopolistic but in general they were in charge of operations in the centers of big cities rather than mom-and-pop picture houses in the hinterlands.

But independent exhibitors didn’t think this was fair and towards the end of the 1920s began to harass their local political representative to change what was known as “block booking.” This was where a cinema signed up with one studio for its entire annual output of 50 or 60 films, sight unseen. Exhibitors complained they had no idea what they were going to get. The contract they signed might simply point to three films with Joan Crawford, two from Greta Garbo and so on. Exhibitors conveniently ignored the fact that it was impossible for a studio tasked with making so many pictures to plan so far ahead. Studios would have to be working or two or three sets of 50-60 movies every year just to meet exhibitor demand.

Generally, however, Hollywood with its free-wheeling attitudes tended to mightily annoy politicians. Producers had become too casual in attitudes to morality. In the 1920s, there were hundreds of censorship bills being lined up to go through legislators while in towns and cities movies could be banned for a variety of reasons. Largely to the save money from defending itself against proposed bills and local censorship, Hollywood decided to go down the self-regulation route. An independent censorship body known as the Production Code was established in 1930.

Hollywood wealth also aggravated the government. Top stars could earn $300,000 a year at a  time when millions were unemployed – amounting to 18 per cent of the working population in 1930 – and the average annual salary was $1,368. So in 1934 hoping to shame the industry to reducing salaries the Government forced studios to reveal the actual earnings of every star. It  hoped  a public backlash would produce a boycott that would make the industry see sense. However, although the bill afforded those inclined to demonstrate moral superiority the opportunity for outrage, the public did not take against the movie industry. (You can find out more about this in my book When Women Ruled Hollywood.)

But the Government plowed ahead in its intent of bringing the industry to heel. This time politicians returned to the original source of contention – block booking. And in 1939  Government legislation prevented companies forcing exhibitors to sign contracts for a year’s supply of movies sight unseen.

There were two major outcomes of the new law. Firstly, movies could not be released until seen by exhibitors. That resulted in studios at great expense setting up trade shows in cities all over America. While theoretically this was a good idea since now exhibitors would know what they were getting, in reality it was plainly preposterous. If an average movie house changed programs twice a week and showed double bills as was the norm then they would have to allocate around six hours a week, plus travelling time, to attend the trade shows. More time, in fact, because the studios did not run a stack of films back-to-back in a tidy preview; rather previewing one film at a time.

The second rule, to prevent studios lumping a heap of bad movies in with a smaller number of good ones was to limit the maximum number of films that could be sold in a block to five. The assumption was that in order to attract interest each block would have to contain one or two good pictures. And that a studio’s biggest-budgeted pictures would be included in such blocks.

But the legislators had left a couple of loopholes, so it didn’t go the way they expected. In the first place, there was nothing to prevent a studio putting one picture in its own block. That meant studios could protect their biggest productions, forcing exhibitors to pay far more for them from the outset than before. The second, and more serious point, was that the need to trade-show created a supply drought and studios showed no signs of speeding up the supply chain since in effect they had to make two years’ worth of movies in one year.

So they held back movies until they felt any batch had realized its potential. By the mid-1940s each studio was sitting on a back catalog of about 20-30 movies. To fill the gap, studios took to reviving old films, but charging top dollar for them. Whenever it looked like exhibitors were opting for cheaper older films rather than more expensive films, the studios simply cut off the supply of reissues.

Studios and cinemas faced a multiplicity of problems during the war, from the Government limiting the amount of raw stock to make prints to enforcing blackouts on front-of-house marquees , but even so there was full employment and theaters had to remain open for longer periods in order to cope with demand.

The fact that studios had taken everything the government could throw at them and still came up smiling enraged the powers-that-be. Now exhibitors were agitating for greater freedom to show films i.e not be told when they could and could not show a film and not have to wait a specified period of time as a movie shuttled down the food chain. Lawsuits were piling up. The studios had operated a self-regulating arbitration system since the 1920s, often paying out millions of dollars in reparation to hard-done-by exhibitors, but that system was rapidly descending into chaos.

Studios just had too much power, as far as the Government was concerned, and would have to choose between making movies and showing them. That resulted in the 1948 Decree. Interestingly, the exhibitors were not all pro-change. Some foresaw the potential devastation that lay ahead and complained that this was the kind of victory that put exhibitors out of business.  The decree had been intended to create equality of opportunity, but it had the opposite effect as exhibitors battled with each other to obtain product from a steadily-diminishing supply. Most exhibitors came off worse as a result of a change in the law that they had instigated.

Getting rid of the law entirely now will open the doors for the likes of Netflix and Amazon to move big time into cinema ownership. This will help them fight any plans by the Oscar ruling class to stop their films being considered for these valuable statuettes. But it might also strengthen the potential for films initially intended for streaming to be given a longer or simultaneous run in theaters. At some point Netflix, which has been built entirely on debt, will see the value of a billion-dollar hit and what it can add to the bottom line while still benefiting from getting first bite at streaming. Most films made for streaming drop into the made-for-television feature film category that has been around since the 1960s. The Killers (1964) with Lee Marvin, for example, was shown first in cinemas though originally made for television. But just as television companies found then, the public just does not want to stay at home all the time watching the small screen, even when the movies have decent stars, and hopefully a similar sort of sanity will prevail today.