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

Lost Command (1966) ****

Derring-do and heroism were the 1960s war movie default with enemies clearly signposted in black-and-white. This one doesn’t fall into that category, in fact doesn’t fall into any category, being more concerned with the military and political machinations pervasive on both sides in war. Movies about revolutions generally succeed if they are filmed from the perspective of the insurrectionists. When they take the side of the oppressor, almost automatically they lose the sympathy vote, The Green Berets (1968) in this decade being a typical example, although the sheer directorial skill of Francis Coppola turned that notion on its head with Apocalypse Now (1979) when slaughter was accompanied by majesty.  In the 1950s-1960s the French had come off worse in two uprisings, Vietnam and Algiers. This movie covers the tale end of the former and the middle of the latter and it’s a curious hybrid, part Dirty Dozen, part John Wayne, part dirty tricks on either side, with a few ounces of romance thrown in.

Scene from the Italian photobusta.

Anthony Quinn, in unlikely athletic mode (that’s him leaping in the poster) is the officer of a paratroop regiment who sees out the debacle of the final battle of the French war in Vietnam, loses his commission, and then, reprieved, is posted to Algeria, where the fight for independence is in full swing, with a ragbag of rejects plus some faithful comrades from his previous command. In any spare moment, Quinn can be seen keeping fit, doing handstands, swinging his arms, puffing out his chest, and a fair bit of running, presumably to avoid the contention that he was too old for this part. Alain Delon, a bit too moralistic for the dangerous business of war, plays his sidekick. Quinn is an ideal anti-hero for a hero, an officer who ignores, challenges or just plain overrides authority, adored by his men, hated by the enemy, ruthless when it matters.

Cardinale’s seductive wiles can’t fool Quinn.

The brutal realism, which sometimes makes you quail, is nonetheless the best thing about the picture, no holds barred here when it comes to portraying the ugly side of conflict. The training in The Dirty Dozen is a doddle compared to here, soldiers who don’t move fast enough are actually shot, rather than just threatened with live ammunition, and there’s no second chance for the incompetent – at the passing out ceremony several are summarily dismissed. The only kind of Dirty Dozen-type humor is a soldier who fills his canteen with wine. Otherwise, this is a full-on war. Battles are fought guerilla style, the enemy as smart as the Vietnamese, catching out the French in ambushes, using infiltrators sympathetic to the cause and terrorism. Unlike Apocalypse Now where the infantry appeared as dumb as they come, relying on strength in numbers and superior weaponry, Lost Command at least has an officer who understands strategy and most of what ensues involves clever thinking. The battles, played out in the mountains, usually see the French having to escape tricky situations rather than blasting through the enemy like cavalry, although having sneakily pinched a mayor’s helicopter (though minus Wagnerian overtones) gives Quinn’s team the opportunity to strafe the enemy on the rare occasions when they can actually be found, their camouflage professionally done.

George Segal, unrecognizable under a slab of make-up apart from his flashing white teeth, plays the Arab rebel chief. In terms of tactics and brutality, they are evenly matched, Segal shooting one of his own men for disobeying orders. Claudia Cardinale appears briefly at the start as Segal’s sister and when she turns up halfway through giving Delon the come-on it’s a bit too obvious where this plotline is going.  With both sides determined to win at all costs, atrocities are merely viewed as collateral damage, so in that respect it’s an unflinching take on war. The picture could have done with another 15 minutes or so to allow characters to breathe and develop some of the supporting cast. The movie did well in France but sank in the States where my guess is few of the audience would even know where Algeria was. Gilles Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, out the same year, gave the revolutionaries the leading role. For the most part Quinn is in bull-in-a-china-shop form but his character is more rounded in a romantic interlude with a countess (Michele Morgan), his ability to outsmart his superior officers, his camaraderie with his own soldiers and, perhaps more surprisingly, the ongoing exercise routines which reveal, rather than a keep-fit fanatic, an ageing soldier worried about running out of steam.

Creating the Theme Music to the 1960s: John Barry and Don Black

You can’t really write about 1960s films without making some reference to the revolutionary composers and lyricists who penned so many of the decade’s finest music. Rather than concentrate on the films to which the pair made vital contributions, I thought I would point you in the direction of a Eddi Fiegel’s biography of John Barry and this year’s autobiography of Don Black.

Barry, the son of a Yorkshire cinema owner, was a true child of the Sixties, a handsome man in handmade suits, living in Chelsea, driving an E-type Jaguar or a white Maserati, and friend of Michael Caine and David Bailey. He squired some of the most glamorous women of the era like Britt Ekland and Charlotte Rampling and was married to one its most enigmatic actresses Jane Birkin (Wonderwall, 1968, and co-conspirator of the hit single “Je T’Aime”).

After forming jazz outfit the John Barry Seven, regulars on TV program the 6.5 Special, he scored and arranged singles for pop singer Adam Faith who proved his passport to the movie business with Beat Girl (1959). But Dr No (1962) for which he was only paid £250 changed his life and he became the most in-demand film composer in British cinematic history. He followed up with successes such as Zulu (1963), Goldfinger (1964) and The Ipcress File (1965) and although his music sold in enormous quantities in terms of singles and soundtrack albums, his work had not come to the notice of the Oscar voters.

Born Free (1966) changed all that when he linked up with lyricist Don Black. Columbia had initially insisted that an American folk group would write and perform the theme song. But Barry was determined to do it himself. While the theme for Goldfinger had taken many days and nights to complete, Born Free was a different story: “I wrote the whole thing from beginning to end in about ten minutes,” said Barry. He had previously worked with Black on Thunderball (1965). The collaboration clicked from the outset. “John’s very word-conscious,” commented Black, “and that’s unusual for most composers.” However, Black’s socially-conscious lyrics did not initially go down well with producer Carl Foreman and Barry had continuous problems over the way the music should be handled in the film. The theme went to number one in America and Barry picked up two Oscars, for original music and, shared with Black, for best song.

Talking of John Barry, here’s a mystery someone might be able to solve. I came across this advert in “Films and Filming” magazine which listed John Barry as a producer. Joe Massot went on to direct Wonderwall (1968) but George Harrison did the music for that. Any ideas?

Even so, Barry was not welcomed in Hollywood. “I remember in Hollywood,” noted composer Leslie Bricusse, “the fraternity of film composers there being very condescending towards John, talking about him as this pop musician who’d been in a band…the top brass…saw John as this kind of upstart. ” That changed with heist movie Deadfall (1968) – the “Romance for a Guitar and Orchestra” section my favorite piece of Barry music – and The Lion in Winter (1968) for which he won his second Oscar.

The bulk of Fiegel’s book covers the music Barry wrote in the 1960s and it is full of riveting detail about the circumstances surrounding various films. This is not a new book but it’s one I go back to again and again to remind me of John Barry’s genius.

By comparison The Sanest Guy in the Room: A Life in Lyrics by Don Black was published this year. “The first thing you learn as a lyric writer,” says Black, ” is not to waste a syllable” and that is the mantra for this delightful book, full of interesting anecdotes, insights into the work of other famous lyricists, and containing many of his own lyrics. He worked with singers Shirley Bassey and Barbra Streisand, a string of top composers including Maurice Jarre, Francis Lai, Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, Elmer Bernstein and Henry Mancini and wrote musicals including Tell Me on a Sunday with Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

He grew up in council house in Hackney, London. But his initial attempts to become a songwriter floundered and he worked on the weekly music paper New Musical Express before becoming a “plugger” – a publicist – for a music publishing company and then a stand-up comedian.

However, he had become good friends with crooner Matt Monro – whom he would later manage – and the singer encouraged him to give songwriting another chance. When Barry approached him to write the lyrics for Thunderball, his career took off. Normally he wrote the lyrics once the composer had completed the tune. But To Sir, With Love was written first. Canadian Mark London supplied the music. British pop star Lulu, who was in the film, recorded it and it topped the charts in the United States.

But his closest collaborator remained John Barry. “It was easy writing with John – he would hand me a melody and I would go home and put words to it…If you write the words first there is a tendency to ramble, but if you only have a limited number of notes they provide you with a rigid framework.”

You can’t be a lyricist without versatility as proven by some of the songs he wrote in the 1960s – for films as diverse as Yul Brynner adventure The Long Duel (1967), A Matter of Innocence (1967) starring Hayley Mills, Peter Sellers comedy The Party (1968), Burton and Taylor drama Boom! (1968), biopic Isadora (1968) with Vanessa Redgrave, spy thriller Some Girls Do (1969), George Segal-Ursula Andress adventure Southern Star (1969) and The Italian Job (1969) starring Michael Caine.

As well as the Oscar for Born Free, he was nominated for best song for True Grit (1969), Ben (1972), Gold (1974) and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976). More recently he has been presenting a show on BBC Radio Two. His autobiography is a very spirited read, whizzing you from one anecdote to the next, and as promised no word wasted.

Link to Don Black book – https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=the+sanest+guy+in+the+room+by+don+black&i=stripbooks&crid=2YM0QDSYCZ9Y2&sprefix=the+sanest+guy+in+the+room%2Cstripbooks%2C164&ref=nb_sb_ss_ts-a-p_1_26

Link to John Barry book –