Box Office Poison 1960s Style

The success in 1968 of such disparate movies as The Graduate (1967), Valley of the Dolls (1968) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with no discernible stars got Hollywood thinking whether they needed stars anymore. Stars were viewed as insurance. Their names were attached to pictures in the hope that they would bring a sizeable audience.

But for some time that had proved not to be the case. Certainly actors with the box office clout of Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Elizabeth Taylor, Lee Marvin, John Wayne, Richard Burton and Elvis Presley justified their extravagant salaries. But exhibitors had begun to complain that studios were forcing them to carry the cost of stars who did not deliver, the salaries inflating “the terms that theatres must pay for films.”

Big names viewed as box office poison in 1968 included Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, William Holden and Natalie Wood. An investigation by trade magazine Variety uncovered the fact that in each case the last four pictures of each star – who earned $250,000 or more per movie – had flopped. Average movie budgets by now had climbed to $3-$4 million not counting marketing costs so most movies had to bring in over $10 million at the global box office to break even

The star with the worst track record was Anthony Quinn. Average rental for his past four pictures – $800,000. While Zorba the Greek (1964) had been an unexpected hit, what followed was anything but. Discounting a cameo in Marco the Magnificent (1965), the box office duds comprised adventure A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), Lost Command (1965), war film The 25th Hour and misconceived hippie comedy The Happening (1967).

Not far behind was Glenn Ford, a star from the days of Gilda (1946), The Blackboard Jungle  (1955) and The Sheepman (1958). He had begun the current decade badly with big-budget losers Cimarron (1960) and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) and his career never recovered. His last eight pictures brought in an average of less than $1 million apiece in rentals. The sad bunch were: comedy western Advance to the Rear, Dear Heart and aerial drama Fate Is the Hunter (all 1964) followed by western The Rounders and thriller The Money Trap (both 1965) as well big budget war epic Is Paris Burning? (1966), rabies drama Rage (1966) and western The Long Ride Home (1967).

Scarcely any better was William Holden, star of David Lean Oscar-winner Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), John Ford western The Horse Soldiers (1959) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960). His last four efforts – The Lion (1962), romantic comedy Paris When It Sizzles (1964), war drama The 7th Dawn (1964) and Civil War western Alvarez Kelly (1966) – returned an average of $1.05 million in rentals. Variety reckoned he was struggling with the problem of how to “gracefully mature his screen image.”

James Garner, once seen as the natural successor to Clark Gable, had failed to capitalize on the success of John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963). Five of his last seven films had dredged up a mere $1.3 million average. Making up the awful quintet were thriller 36 Hours (1964), comedy thriller A Man Could Get Killed (1966), western pair Duel at Diablo (1966) and Hour of the Gun (1967) plus drama Mister Buddwing (1966). Quite why comedy The Art of Love (1965) had done better – $3.5 million in rentals – nobody could ascertain and even though roadshow Grand Prix (1966) was a hit Garner, who was billed below the title, was not considered a reason for it, with some insiders claiming his name had held it back and it would have done much better with someone else in his role.

Morituri (1965), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), The Poppy Is Also a Flower (1966), western sequel Return of the Seven (1966), Triple Cross (1966) and The Long Duel (1967) had mustered an average of $1.4 million leaving observers to the conclusion that Yul Brynner’s “brand of sex appeal” no longer attracted audiences in America.

Marlon Brando had generated just $8.4 million in total rentals – an average of $1.6 million – for his previous six films. No matter what he did, regardless of genre, he had lost his box office spark whether it was comedies like Bedtime Story (1964) and The Countess from Hong Kong (1966), dramas like The Chase (1966) and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), western The Appaloosa (1966) or thriller Morituri (1965). From the industry perspective he was by far the worst performer since his movies cost so much in directors (Charlie Chaplin, John Huston), co-stars (Elizabeth Taylor. Sophia Loren) and sets.

A string of comedies had sounded the box office death knell for Tony Curtis. Boeing, Boeing (1964), Not with My Wife You Don’t (1966), Arrivederci, Baby! (1966) and Don’t Make Waves (1967) delivered a lamentable $1.77 million on average.

Rock Hudson had fallen far from the pedestal of being the country’s top male star in the early 1960s. Two romantic comedies Strange Bedfellows (1965) and A Very Special Favor (1965), a brace of thrillers Blindfold (1966) and Seconds (1965) plus war film Tobruk (1967) did nothing to restore his standing with just $1.86 million in average rental.

Added to the list of dubious stars was Natalie Wood whose career was considered to be in such jeopardy that she had not made picture in two years. Small wonder after dramas Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966) and crime caper Penelope (1966) which averaged $2.2 million.

Whether anybody’s career could be resuscitated after these disasters was anybody’s guess.

Strangely enough, some did regain at least a measure of their former glory, Marlon Brando the obvious example after The Godfather (1972). James Garner had his biggest-ever hit with Support Your Local Sheriff (1969). Tony Curtis revived his fanbase with The Boston Strangler (1968). William Holden returned to favor after the double whammy of The Devil’s Brigade (1968) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Natalie Wood hit the spot in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969) and Yul Brynner as a robotic gunslinger turned his career around in Westworld (1973).

But Glenn Ford’s career was coming to an end and Anthony Quinn followed up this bunch of flops with two more of the same ilk in the Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) and The Magus (1968) although he would still be offered starring roles for more than a decade.

Of course, luckily, decades on, we are not so much guided by the box office various films had and many pictures that were once dubbed flops are now being re-evaluated by a new generation of film fans.

SOURCE: Lee Beaupre, “Rising Skepticism on Stars,” Variety, May 15, 1968, p1

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.