Behind the Scenes: “The Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

Easy Rider, more acceptable artistically, stole Night of the Living Dead’s thunder the following year as the poster boy for a low-budget phenomenon that would, temporarily at least, usher in a new way of Hollywood thinking. But Night of the Living Dead – initially entitled Monster Flick and Night of the Flesh-Eaters – was movie-making as fairy tale, virtually a throwback to the old trope of doughty characters putting on a show in a barn.

Using guerrilla production techniques, the movie took an astonishing six months to make starting July 1967.  Bronx-born George A. Romero specialised in advertisements and industrial shorts through his Latent Image company before branching out in Pittsburgh with some work colleagues from Hardman Associates to form a movie production company Image Ten, the name indicative of the initial ten investors.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking Romero and his gang were movie neophytes out of their depth. Technically, they were pretty accomplished, churning out adverts and shorts at a steady pace, the kind of education the likes of Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne enjoyed on the London advertising scene. According to Variety, Hardman was “the largest producer of record and radio shows in Pittsburgh…(running) the most completely equipped sound and film studio in the area” while Latent Image was the city’s “biggest producer of video and industrial shorts.”

The principals of both companies proved instrumental to the movie. While Romero took on directing, cinematography and editing duties, the screenplay was down to business partner John A. Russo while another partner Russell Streiner took on the role of producer. Hardman provided actors Karl Hardman, a former RKO contract player, and Marilyn Eastman, who also supervised make-up, costumes and special effects, while Kyra Schon, the dying daughter in the film, was Hardman’s real-life daughter. The rest of the cast were unknowns, Duane Jones in the lead had at least some stage experience, female lead Judith O’Dea had worked with the producers before, while Judith Ridley was a receptionist for the production company. Romance blossomed between O’Dea and Streiner.

Romero’s debut was heavily influenced by Powell and Pressburger’s British bizarre fantasy The Tales of Hoffman (1951) but the final film clearly draws on Richard Matheson’s celebrated 1964 sci-fi novel The Last Man on Earth – filmed in 1971 as The Omega Man and in 2007 as I Am Legend. Where Matheson’s book begins at the end, Romero wanted to show the beginning of how the undead came to rule the world. Since Matheson had used vampires, Romero needed an alternative.

Explained Romero: “I couldn’t use vampires because he did, so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. So I said, what if the dead stop staying dead?” That tapped into the attractive notion of living forever – until you realized what that entailed.

Contrary to expectation – and myth – it didn’t exactly stumble at the box office. A month after initial release its opening salvoes were advertised in “Box Office” magazine (November 25, 1968)
accompanied by some of the better reviews harvested.

Shockerama pictures would be the easiest way to find a foothold on the distribution ladder. Initially devised as a horror comedy it took several drafts, the first couple involving aliens, before arriving at the concept of flesh-eating re-animated corpses.

Ben was originally envisaged as a blue collar truck driver and evolved into the more educated character as a result of rewriting by Duane Jones who objected to playing such a cliché. But improvisation was very much the order of the day. Recalled O’Dea: “I don’t know if there was an actual working script. We would go over what basically had to be done and then just did it the way we each felt it should be done.”

The initial investors ponied up $600 each but that proved insufficient as production developed, the company eventually raising $114,000. (The  average cost of making a movie at that time was $1.6 million.) Budget dictated location be as remote as possible, the main locale a house scheduled for demolition.  Chocolate syrup doubled as blood, human flesh was roasted ham and entrails supplied by one of the actors who was also a butcher. Clothing was anything the cast possessed that they didn’t mind being ripped. Color film was too expensive, and the resulting black-and-white footage has the effect of newsreel, almost a documentary rather than a work of fiction.

Although a myth has arisen that the movie struggled to find its way into the distribution food chain, that was not the case. Studios were desperate to find product and happy to hang their shingle on anything that could keep their clients, cinemas starved of movies, happy. Columbia and American International were both interested, but demanded a happy ending. When Romero stuck to his guns, the movie ended up with the Walter Reade organisation, a noted distributor of foreign and cult pictures, better suited to this kind of fare.

Nor was it sneaked out into cinemas as has been usually assumed. Given that by 1968 cinema managers owners were in part reliant on low-budget shockers, the National Association of Theater Owners instigated a nationwide “Exploitation Picture of the Month” campaign of which Night of the Living Dead was one of the early beneficiaries, as a result of its involvement scooping, for example, $117,000 from 26 houses in Philadelphia. and other pretty decent figures shown in the advertisement above.

Nor did it go out below-the-wire in Pittsburgh. A full-scale black-tie premiere was held on October 1, 1968, at the Reade-owned Fulton attended by Mayor Barr and the city’s safety director Norman Craig and various councillors. It rang a heavy box office bell, knocking up $62,000 – over $500,000 at today’s prices – for 11 theaters, outpointing Rosemary’s Baby (1968) which had played the same houses the week before. The distributor came up with a clever marketing ploy of taking out a $50,000 insurance policy with Lloyds of London against adverse audience reaction.

The film attracted controversy for going out un-rated. There was nothing unusual about that either. Only studios aligned with the MPAA Production Code had to submit their movies for the censor’s rating. Reade, which wasn’t involved in the Code, often imported movies from Europe and part of their attraction was that they were unrated, containing levels of nudity or violence that the official censor at the time would find impossible to pass. Lack of the vaunted Production Code Seal of Approval did not prevent a movie being shown, it just meant certain cinemas would not book it.

Chicago critic Roger Ebert made journalistic hay by complaining that kids were being allowed in to watch the movie. That he might be on hand to witness their shock at the images they saw seems hard to believe since critics usually viewed pictures in advance of opening at special screenings. In any case, in Chicago, Night of the Living Dead didn’t slip through the censorship net, but was passed by the local censorship board. His beef was with them, complaining that while the censors drew the line at nudity they had nothing against cannibalism. And it seems pretty odd that the management wasn’t aware of the film’s shocking content – presumably that being the reason it was booked in the first place – and permitted youngsters to troop in.

Although New York critics gave it the thumbs-down at least the New York Times (Vincent Canby no less), Post and Daily News took the trouble to see it, so it would at least benefit from editorial exposure. The trade press were mixed. While Variety railed that it “set a new low in box office opportunism,” its trade press competitor Box Office reckoned there was “an audience for this particular brand of sadism especially in drive-ins.”

Perhaps surprisingly given critical disapproval Night of the Living Dead enjoyed first-run outings in a variety of cities, though its main target was showcase (wide local release) and drive-ins. In Los Angeles it picked up a “hip” $10,500 at the 1,757-seat first-run Warren. (Multiply by ten to get an idea of how inflation would treat the gross and bear in mind this is pre-multiplex when cinema capacity could reach 5,000 and most city center emporiums seated 500-plus). In Boston it registered a “cool” $8,000 at the 1,250-seat Center. New York’s Broadway had to wait a year when the prestigious roadshow house the DeMille, in the week before it hosted 70mm extravaganza The Battle of Britain (1969), booked Slaves (1969)/Night of the Living Dead, grossing $21,000 in an eight-day fill-in run.

In its first New York showcase, when Night of the Living Dead was the main attraction with Dr Who and the Daleks in support, it scorched through $286,000 from 39 cinemas, the joint top result for the week. Returning a year later, as the support to Slaves put another $125,000 in the kitty from 26 plantations, again the top showcase performer for the week. Among notable wider releases were $14,300 from three in Dayton where it was “weekends at capacity in ozoners” (industry jargon for drive-ins). There was $10,000 from three houses in Minnesota.

Not being a contender for sale to television extended its screen life at a time when even big hits landed on small screens within a few years. As well as Slaves it was revived as the supporting feature to newer items Brotherhood of Satan (1971), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and The Nightcomers (1971). The teaming with Slaves racked up a “rousing” $82,000 in Detroit at the 5,000-seat Fox, and $55,000 the following week. The double bill with Brotherhood of Satan beat the previous week’s pairing of the reissued Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid/Mash. It formed part of an interesting triple bill at the 500-seat Plaza arthouse in Boston where it was teamed with Dutchman (1966) and Ulysses (1967).

But it was also building up a head of steam on the midnight screening circuit and began a record year’s run in that slot at the Plaza in Boston. Gradually, as it acquired more artistic credibility it turned up at prestigious New York 538-seat arthouse the Beekman with Invasion of the Body Snatchers in support (gross $5,000), ironically acting as trailer for a six-week programme of revivals based on “Ten Best” selections from critics which had avowedly spurned the movie. And it was chosen as the ideal companion for the once-banned Freaks (1932). Perhaps proof of the breakthrough into respectable cult territory, six years after initial release, was a New York showcase pairing with Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972), drumming up $63,500 from 29 bandstands.

By the end of December 1970, rentals (the amount the studio collects from cinemas as opposed to overall gross) stood at $1 million – which probably indicated a gross of around  $3 million. It found a British distributor in Crispin and eventually rolled out successfully around the world with an estimated $18 million in global gross.

SOURCES:  John Russo, The Complete Night of the Living Dead Filmbook (Imagine, 1985), p6,7, 31, 61, 70;  Joe Kane, Night of the Living Dead (Citadel Press, 2010) p23; Jason Paul Collum, Attack of the Killer B’s (McFarland, 2004) p3; Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, January 5, 1969; Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere, A History of the Hollywood Wide Release, 1913-2017 (McFarland 2019), p161; “Pittsburgh Premiere Held for Walter Reade Thriller,” Box Office, October 8,1968, p8;  “Pittsburgh’s Hometown Horror to Reade: Surprise Boff BO,” Variety, October 9, 1968, p17; “Review,” Variety, October 16, 1968, p6; “Big Success Claimed for Image Ten Film,” Box Office, October 21, 1968, pE1; Advert, Box Office, November 25, 1968, p7; “N.Y. Critics: A Shooting Gallery,” Variety, December 11, 1968, p19; “Sun-Times Wants Chicago ‘Absurd’ Censorship Brought to Halt,” Box Office, March 14, 1969, p10; “Pittsburgh’s Latent Image Make 2nd Film,” Variety, December 3, 1969, p4; “Pittsburgh’s Cannibal Film Big Box Office,” Variety, April 8, 1970, p13; Advertisement, Kine Weekly, June 16, 1970, p61; “Big Rental Films of 1970,” Variety, January 6, 1971, p11; “Year of Friday Midnight Showings,” Variety, August 16, 1972, p6.

Box Office Figures from Variety: December 4, 1968, p13; December 11, 1968, p10-p11; December 18, 1968, p8-p13; July 9, 1969, p8; March 4, 1970, p12; October 13, 1971, p8-p12; October 20, 1969, p9;  October 27, 1971, p16;  Mar 17, 1972, p10; April 12, 1972, p10; May 12, 1971, p8; July 19, 1972, p12; August 9, 1972, p8; September 25, 1974, p8.

MGM’s Reissue Wheeze: Meet Demand One Day at a Time

By the start of the 1960s the classic retrospective was nothing new –  a dozen Greta Garbo pictures split into double-bills each playing for a couple of days could fill an arthouse for a fortnight. Charlie Chaplin was in a class of his own, single bills of his own movies running for weeks in arthouses.

But these revivals of older movies had a noted common denominator. They were arthouse fodder. The ordinary picture house owners, bereft of a steady stream of movies when the industry hit the buffers at the start of the decade and when roadshows started to clog the food chain, would not find many takers among their ordinary clientele for such pictures.

Fred Schwartz of MGM came up with the solution. He was in the unusual position of knowing exactly how difficult life was for the exhibitor. He had been one in Long Island. There was nothing particularly new about his plan to launch a more popular version of the old movie revival. What was revolutionary was how he planned to do it, an idea that only an exhibitor could dream up.

Because what every ordinary exhibitor, running a small operation far away from the august city center outfits that could hold on to new pictures for weeks, sometimes months, on end, dreaded was the midweek lull. Most small theaters ran on split-week programs. A new double bill at the start of the week, another one at the end. The very fact that the first one was running when demand was at its lowest invariably meant that by the Wednesday the movies were showing to virtually empty houses.

So in 1962 Schwartz decided to revive the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy series of operettas and play them only on a Wednesday. And they would be rationed. Exhibitors could not just arrange their own program, decide which of the six on offer to show on which date, or only take some and not others. Schwartz decided on the running order. And you had to take them all or none at all. And they were playing on percentages rather than the normal flat rate for an oldie. And these were all films that had already been shown on television.

This was a series of adverts, with the main picture switiching by the week with an arrow pointing to its position in the program.

Which was a stiff call for an exhibitor. But the innovative Schwartz promised new prints and new artwork promoting all six pictures all at once. Not just that, he had a dream of a wheeze. Audiences would pay in advance. Just as with roadshows. They would buy a season ticket to see all six movies. Since the movies would only be screened once with no guarantee they would ever return, that did not seem too onerous a commitment. And who was so busy on a Wednesday night that they couldn’t spare the time to relive the Hollywood Golden Age?

The linked series of films with new advertising campaigns and prints was promoted as “a smart playoff pattern fashioned to reintroduce older fans to best-remembered hits and attract new audiences that never saw them.” And also, unstated, was the notion it would bring back to the cinema those fans who had long given up going due to the excess of sex and violence.

Equally, unstated, the program’s overall title “The MGM Perpetual Product Plan” pandered to exhibitor fear of there being no guarantees – of when a new movie would arrive, if it would come at all, and if in the next few months the entire distribution set-up would grind to a halt. Studios were so busy taking care of the palaces in the big cinema centers that they had plain forgot about the role played by the small cinemas.

The Jukebox approach in action. A sidebar lists all the famous songs the cinemagoer will hear again.

The introductory half-dozen tabbed “The Golden Operettas” were: Rose Marie (1936), The Merry Widow (1934), The Great Waltz (1938), The Student Prince (1954), Girl of the Golden West (1938) and The Chocolate Solder (1941).  The program poster was issued well in advance allowing customers to mark the dates off in their diaries.

Schwartz hit the bulls-eye. Cinemas whose normal takings amounted to little more than $60 found themselves sitting on five times as much, often much more, receipts running in the region of $300-$500 a night. The Chocolate Soldier was the top earner, hitting highs of $2,200 a night, followed by The Student Prince on $1,900 a night. Schwartz expected 2,500 cinemas to sign up – he beat his target by over 1,000.

Schwarz followed up with an eight-week “World Heritage Film and Book Program” which included Little Women (1949) starring the now-huge-star Elizabeth Taylor, Captains Courageous (1937) with Hollywood perennial Spencer Tracy in Oscar-winning form, Errol Flynn in Kim (1950) and W,C. Fields in David Copperfield (1935). This particular mix, programmed during the school term, had the added advantage of being able to be sold to schools for matinees, winning the endorsement of national educators and helped on its marketing way by a tie-up with Scholastic publishers.

With a vast vault to be plundered, MGM created a third package entitled “World Famous Musical Hits.” This comprised Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Mario Lanza in Because You’re Mine (1952), Fred Astaire in The Bandwagon (1953) and Three Little Words (1948) plus Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) and Words and Music (1948). The latter three fell into what we would call today the “jukebox” category since they were biopics of the country’s greatest Broadway composers Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hart and Kalmar & Ruby.

MGM branched out into other mixed seasons that might bring together Garbo and the Marx Brothers and another including more modern operettas and musicals. Once the one-day-a-week concept had run its course, the movies were repackaged as double bills in split weeks. MGM also permitted local managers to experiment with their own programs, one such, the double bill of Ivanhoe (1952) and Knights of the Round Table (1953), proving so popular the studio spun it out on its own national reissue. Eventually, exhibitors were permitted the option of running the seasons on Mondays, thus getting the week off to a flying start, instead of Wednesdays and some cinemas began offering the season tickets as Xmas gifts.

Schwartz knew ordinary cinemas would lack the instinctive knowledge of how sell this unusual program so he spent a lot of money and expended a huge amount of effort showing exactly how it should be sold. Where other studios took cinema circuit owners and key exhibitors away to shindigs to introduce them to new movies, Schwartz did the same for his old pictures. He devised a lobby campaign that would not only include all the films being shown, but their specific dates, the advertisement itself designed to highlight that week’s film while also promoting the ones still to appear.

The fact that operators could actually market a movie scheduled to be shown in four or six weeks time was in itself revolutionary because the distribution rules of the time forbade theaters from advertising movies beyond the one being shown the next week. That was to get round the possibility that a moviegoer would put off trekking into the city center to see a new big picture if he knew it would turn up in his neighborhood house a couple of months later.

The strategy of appealing to a core of older movie fans who would then bring in through word-of-mouth the younger generation was behind the marketing of later reissues featuring such iconic stars as Humphrey Bogart. And it’s also interesting to note that these days most revivals of older pictures are restricted to a one-day showing. In almost a homage to the Fred Schwartz plan, the James Bond 60th Anniversary revival, for example, is currently showing in Cineworld houses in the U.K. on a Monday for 25 consecutive weeks, beginning mid-April and due to end in October.  

If you’re interested in the whole subject of why old movies keep on popping up – Jaws 3D the latest example – you could do worse than take a look at the book I’ve written on the subject, which turned out to be the gold standard on reissues/revivals. It took me forever to write and no wonder as it clocks in at a mammoth 250,000 words (including notes which contain a mine of extra information). I’m not an academic, as you might have gathered, so had no way of plugging the book into the academic pipeline when it first appeared several years back. But now I’m pleased to say it has found its niche. 

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You, A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016), p127-131;  “MGM’s Perpetual Product Plan,” Independent Exhibitor Bulletin, October 1, 1962, p11; “MGM Older Product to Regional Outlets,” Box Office, November 20, 1961, p7; “2,500 Bookings for MGM’s Operetta Predicted by Fred Schwartz,” Box Office, September 17, 1962, 5; “Operetta Series Ducats Sold as Xmas Gifts,” Box Office, January 14, 1963, 69; “MGM Offering $100 Prize for Perpetual Product,” Box Office, January 21, 1963, 5.“Heritage and Operetta Films Yield Well When Promotion Centered on School,” Box Office, February 11, 1963, 66; “MGM Reissues in Black,” Variety, February 27, 1963, 13; “MGM Policy on Reissues Is Open Ended,” Independent Film Bulletin, April 3, 1963, 10; “If Handpicked, Reissues Can Tint Mondays Golden,” Variety, September 18, 1963, 13; “Metro Rally for Reissues,” Variety, October 9, 1963, 15.

Behind the Scenes: “Bunny Lake Is Missing” (1965)

Unusually for an Otto Preminger project, this took an unconscionably long time to get off the ground, given he had purchased rights to the bestseller by Evelyn Piper which had been published in 1957. The first problem was that no one could lick the screenplay. Getting first bite was Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, 1967), followed by “wholesale doctoring” by Dalton Trumbo (Exodus, 1960) who delivered a “polished script.” But that failed to satisfy the director either and triggered further attempts by Charles Eastman (Little Fauss and Big Halsy, 1970) and Arthur Kopit (Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mummy’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, 1967). But nobody seemed able to come up with a satisfactory job. The book had been set in New York as had the various subsequent screenplays. The solution appeared to be to shift the location some 3,000 miles to London. Penelope Mortimer (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) wrote a draft but ended up having a fight with Preminger and withdrew and the project was completed by her husband John Mortimer (John and Mary, 1969).

The Levin screenplay was dismissed as being too faithful to the book, the kidnapper in this instance turning out to be a former teacher who was childless and afflicted with “menopausal psychosis,” a character Preminger found weak and uninteresting. Trumbo changed the villain into a wealthy woman, not just childless but judged unfit to adopt, an approach the director deemed “very theatrical and wrong.” The Kopit and Eastman versions offered no better solution. “I almost gave up Bunny Lake,” admitted Preminger, “because while working in the script I realized that women would not like the film…because they are afraid of all situations in which a child is in danger.”  After considering transplanting the story to Paris, Preminger finally settled on London, and hired the Mortimers whose villain brought the picture a 2new dimension.”

Until now, and in keeping with the original novel, Newhouse, while assisting in the investigation, had been a psychiatrist. In the hands of the Mortimers he now morphed into a police inspector. Wilson who had been Newhouse’s quite respectable friend turned into a drunken reprobate. At this point the heroine’s name remained Blanche as in the book. There was one other significant element that changed between the initial Mortimer script and the final shooting script: at the start of the film the Ann and Steven were shown reacting as if the child was there, whereas when the movie went before camera the question of the child’s existence remained in doubt. Penelope Mortimer dropped out when, summoned with her husband to Honolulu where Preminger was filming In Harm’s Way, she was roundly ignored.

Filming was originally scheduled to slip in between Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Exodus (1960) with a budget set at $2 million. But something always seemed to get in the way. Occasionally it was a bigger project. After Columbia announced filming was scheduled for 1961, Bunny Lake was pushed back to spring 1962 to permit the filming of Advise and Consent (1961).  Then The Cardinal (1962) took precedence but only to the extent of shifting the Bunny project till later that year. Then it was set to be completed by fall 1963. Further cause of delay was the decision to accommodate the pregnancy of that Lee Remick who had signed for the leading female role. But when she was ready to go, Preminger was not and she fell out of the equation.

At one point, fearful of his schedule becoming too crowded – filled with expensive projects like The Cardinal and In Harm’s Way (1965) – Preminger had tried to wriggle out of the directorial commitment, planning to limit his involvement to producing only, but studio Columbia would not accept this. Preminger was in considerable demand, like a major movie star contracted to deals with rival studios, in 1961 for three pictures with United Artists and four for Columbia and by 1965 adding into the mix a seven-picture deal with Paramount, and most of these big pictures, leaving little time for a relatively low-budget – by his standards – picture.

A good example of the British distribution system. The film opened at the Odeon Leicester Square and quickly went into general release, first in cinemas in North London and a week later the prints shifted to South London. In the West End, it ran solo, in the suburbs as a double bill.

Finally, Bunny Lake received the green light with filming beginning in London on April 9, 1965. Unusually, the movie was shot entirely on location, the director expressing a “yen for realistic on the spot” filming in a dozen places including a pub, the Cunard office and Scotland Yard. A school in Hampstead doubled for the nursery, the mews flat was found just behind Trafalgar Square. He was quick to point this was not a matter of economy. “What you save in studio (time) you spend in other ways. But I think it leads to more urgent film-making.” Somewhat surprisingly, he aimed to shoot in black-and-white, colour now being predominant except for low-budget movies and those wishing to take advantage of black-and-white world War Two newsreel footage as was the case with his previous picture In Harm’s Way.

Carolyn Lynley (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) was given the lead with Keir Dullea (David and Lisa, 1962) in the pivotal role of her brother. Neither could be considered a big star although Lynley had the second female lead in The Cardinal and moved up the credit rankings to female lead in the low-budget Shock Treatment (1964). But she was such a hot prospect Preminger in 1965 signed her to a four-picture deal although this was not exclusive as she also had contracts with Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia. Dullea was potentially a better prospect, picking up some acting kudos for David and Lisa, the designated star of that picture and The Thin Red Line (1964) but only second lead for Mail Order Bride (1963) and the Italian-made The Naked Hours (1963).

Although some decades away from his Hollywood box office prime, the casting of Oscar-winner and five-time nominee Laurence Olivier (Spartacus, 1960) was something of a coup, although he was only hired because another actor proved too expensive. Other parts were filled by actors experienced in the Preminger school of film-making, Martita Hunt from The Fan (1949)- and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Victor Maddern (Saint Joan, 1958) and David Oxley (Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse).

The first day’s shooting was in a television studio to capture the newsreader and pop group The Zombies which the content of the show shown in the pub on television. Contrary to depictions of Preminger as a martinet on set, he was keen in rehearsals to “put everyone at ease” although he emphasised the need for “slow, thoughtful diction.” The famous Preminger wrath came down heavily on personnel failing to carry out their job correctly. But he accepted Olivier’s decision to omit a particular phrase. He was specific about the look he wished to achieve, required high contrast black-and-white cinematography while nothing was to be done “to enhance Carol Lynley’s beauty: instead…to deepen her features, bring out her emotions.”

And he was determined to get what he wanted, 18 takes required to complete a lengthy tracking shot that flows Inspector Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) and Miss Smollett (Anna Massey) as they negotiate a passage through a group of noisy children in a classroom and then across a hall. Accepting Lynley’s difficulty in expressing the pain of losing a child, he instructed her to forget about subtext and play the moment. However, 14 takes of a scene between Lynley and Olivier was too much for the actress but she was comforted when Preminger told her the famous actor was the problem not her. But on another occasion, Preminger ended up giving her an almost line for line reading of how he wanted the scene played. The only way he got what he wanted was to reduce her to “sobbing uncontrollably” and then start the camera rolling.

Without question, Keir Dullea came off first. “He would humiliate you, he would scream at you…his dripping sarcasm was the worst of it,” recalled Dullea. “I was always very prepared in terms of knowing my lines…but the stress, there was some action where I was supposed to put a glass down or pick up a glass” that Dullea kept getting wrong. In face of what he deemed incompetence, Preminger accused him of being “an actor who can’t even remember a line and if heremembers a line he can’t remember an action…what, you can’t do these two things at the same time.” In the end Dullea faked a nervous breakdown and after than “he never screamed at me again.”

Olivier would occasionally coming to rescue, persuading the director to ease off and “stop screaming at the children.” Olivier found Preminger such a bully that it “almost put me off his Carmen Jones, which I found an inspired piece of work…It’s a miracle it came from such a heavy-handed egotist.” On the other hand Noel coward, who played the landlord Wilson, believed Preminger an excellent director.

Preminger spun his marketing on a similar gimmick to that utilised by Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho (1960) in preventing the public from entering once the movie had started. To make this more dramatic, he had clocks installed in the lobbies of theaters that counted down the length of the performance and a sign that stated “nobody admitted while the clock is ticking.” Preminger was credited with coming up with a longer tagline for the advertisements: “Not even Alfred Hitchcock will be admitted after the film has started.”

The only problem was Return from the Ashes, released at the same time, had adopted a similar marketing ruse, nobody admitted “after Fabi enters the bath.” Despite this, Preminger went hell-for-leather for this marketing trick, to the extent of adding a rider to exhibitor standard contracts to that effect, not a problem in more sophisticated cities where by now patrons had become accustomed to turning up for a picture’s announced start time but a problem in smaller towns and cities where the whole point of continuous programme (i.e. no break between one film and another) was that moviegoers could walk in whenever they liked.

The whole tone of the marketing did not meet the approval of two important segments of the greater movie community. The National Association of Theater Owners opined that the marketing campaign was weak and were astonished to learn that there was nothing Columbia could so about it – Preminger had advertising-publicity approval. Allowing that some of the advertising images for Preminger pictures, courtesy of designer Saul Bass – The Man with the Golden Arm  (1953), Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus etc – were among the most famous in Hollywood history, it would appear Preminger knew what he was doing. But, in fact, although the Saul Bass credit sequence showing pieces of newspaper being torn away made sense in the framework of the picture, the idea was not so effective taken out of that context.

Not intentionally, perhaps, Preminger also riled the critics, deciding that to “preserve the secrecy of the surprise ending,” the movie would open without the normal advance screenings for reviewers. Such action was more likely to set alarm bells ringing, it being a standard assumption among critics that the only films that went down this route were stinkers. From a practical point-of-view it also ensured that marketing was undercut since the lack of timed reviews denied the picture an essential promotional tool.

Finally, the movie ended up in a war with the censors. Many states in the U.S. had their own censors. Columbia objected to having to wait on the say-so of a local censor – in this case  Kansas – before being able to release a movie. And for any release to be delayed if there was any nit-picking by the censor, especially as this movie had an undercurrent of incest. So Columbia refused to conform and failed to submit Bunny Lake Is Missing to the Kansas censors. After being promptly banned for such arrogance, Columbia objected again and the case went to the Kansas State Supreme Court which judged that the censor was unconstitutional. That resulted in the censors losing their jobs when the board was abandoned and the movie entering release a good while after its initial opening dates.

Although it made no impact at the Oscars, Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris picked it as one the year’s ten best and it was nominated for cinematography and art direction at the Baftas. The film was a flop, failing to return even $1 million in rentals at the U.S. box office. In fact it probably made more when it was sold to ABC TV for around $800,000.

SOURCES: Chris Fujiwara, The World and Its Double, The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, p330-342; (Faber and Faber, 2008) “Trends,” Variety, January 14, 1959, p30; “Ira Levin Pacted by Preminger for Bunny,” Variety, September 2, 1959, p2; “Col Primed To Start ½ Dozen Prods,” Variety, April 5, 1961, p3; “Otto Preminger Views Film Festivals As Important Marketplaces,” Box Office, May 1, 1961, p11; “Trumbo May Script for UA,” Variety, May 31, 1961, p5; “Bunny Lake Delayed,” Variety, June 7, 1961, p18; “Preminger Postpones One,” Box Office, June 12, 1961, p13; “Otto Preminger to Film Cardinal for Col,” Box Office, August 7, 1961, -10; “Otto Preminger Is Guest of Soviet Film Makers,” Box Office , May 14, 1962, pE-4; “Two Writers Signed,” Box Office, August 6, 1962, pSW-3; “Preminger,” Variety, September 12, 1962, p15; “Preminger’s New Rap at Costly U.S. Distribution,” Variety, October 10, 1962, p7; “Preminger Gets Rights to Hurry Sundown,” Box Office, November 23, 1964, p9; “Prem’s Next in London,” Variety, January 13, 1965, p18; “Preminger Signs Actress for Four More Pictures,” Box Office, February 8, 1965, pW-3; “Advertisement,” Variety, April 7, 1965, p1; “Preminger-Paramount Pact Calls for 7 Films,” Box Office, April 26, 1965, p7; “100% Location for Bunny,” Variety, May 5, 1965, p29; “Not Even Hitch,” Variety, September 1, 1965, p4;  “Preminger’s Nix on Pre-Opening Critics,” Variety, September 22, 1965, p16; “2 Pix Enforce Entrance Time on Ticket Buyers,” Variety, September 29, 1965, p5; “Time Rules Are Set for Bunny Shows,” Box Office, October 4, 1965, p13;  “Preminger’s Promotional Prerogative,” Variety, October 27, 1965, p13; “Clock for Bunny Lake,” Box Office, November 8, 1965, p2; “Village Voice Vocal on Bests,” Variety, January 26, 1966, p4; “Col Kayos Kansas Censoring,” Variety, August 3, 1966, p5.

Selling James Bond: Part Two – Pressbook for “Thunderball” (1965)

Wooing the audience was no longer required after Goldfinger (1964) had broken the box office bank. Thunderball, claimed producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, was “the hottest merchandise campaign you have ever handled” as the first four pages of the Pressbook went to show. No longer was there a retailer free-for-all with companies which had nothing to do with endorsements jumping on the Bondwagon.

The potential for promotional tie-in was so high that retailers and manufacturers were willing to spend a fortune to become involved and, in so doing, provide a massive spread of free advertising. Colgate had an entire line of toiletries for men including after shave, shaving lotion, deodorant, and talcum powder, each item branded with the 007 logo with Colgate investing in a massive advertising campaign aimed not just as men but the women who buy for men.

Shoe-wear manufacturer Endicott Johnson set up a nationwide contest through the Montgomery Ward chain of stores. Customers were invited to participate in a free sweepstake and store managers were encouraged to become active in promoting Thunderball at sales points throughout their shops.

Toy manufactuer A.C. Gilbert had devised a James Bond 007 Road Race which would be promoted in the biggest marketing campaign in Sears Roebuck history to 60 million homes. The catalog would feature a five-page spread. “Beatles fans will be reached through a TV buy that Sears has made advertising the Road Race on ABC-TV’s Beatles Cartoon Show.” Adlers Slacks was the exclusive licensee for James Bond 007 Boys Slacks – with two hidden pockets. Revere Knitting Mills was promoting four sweaters “as worn by James Bond.”

Other licensed products included The Official James Bond Secret Agent 007 Shooting Attache Case, Harry Diamond sports shorts with the Bond logo, Allison tee-shirts and sweat shorts, bubble gum and trading cards from the Philadelphia Chewing Gum Corp, and a walkie-talkie set from Gabriel. In addition, Weldon was selling “007 Pyjamas – Go to Bed Dressed to Kill,” Voit manufactured underwater equipment, Spatz advertised its trenchcoats in Playboy, Trimount clothing range included items for men and boys, and Milton Bradley had four board games and six jigsaw puzzles.

So for the first time in history, exhibitors had to do nothing to attract customers, no zany attention-grabbing gimmicks required, because the massive cross-promotional campaign devised by the producers ensured that potential moviegoers could hardly go anywhere without coming across something alerting customers to the movie.

All this was in addition to the normal standard promotional tools such as original soundtrack album and paperback movie tie-in. Tom Jones had released a single and six other artists had brought out instrumental singles and albums. Trade magazine Cash Box noted that the Bond name signified “something big in the worlds of film and music…many labels have themed LPs after the valuable James Bond Agent 007 image.” Signet had brought out the movie tie-in paperback with artwork on front and back covers.

The bulk of the Pressbook was taken up with advertising and information about the licensed products leaving just three pages for the editorial section. By now of course Sean Connery was a big box office star so he received considerable coverage, explaining that he had been chosen for Dr No as a result of a London newspaper poll. There was space too for the movie’s playgirls – former Miss France Claudine Auger, villainess Luciana Paluzzi best known to American audiences through the Five Fingers television series, Molly Peters and a return for Martine Beswick who had appeared in From Russia with Love.

Not surprisingly, the Aston Martin DB5, which had caused a sensation in Goldfinger, also returned. The customised version cost $45,000 (worth $400,000 today), compared to the usual price of $13,000, and came complete with twin Browning machine guns, tire slashers, revolving number plates, radar screen, ejector seat, and retractable bullet proof shields.

Selling the Obvious: Pressbook for “Kisses for My President” (1964)

Fred MacMurray doesn’t actually wear a woman’s hat in this picture, he just imagines himself wearing one. But that image was all it took for the marketeers to do it to death. Warner Brothers clearly believed the picture was going to be a winner and produced a whopping 32-page A3 Pressbook (double the normal size) in a bid to persuade exhibitors of its potential. That included a blockbusting two dozen adverts. Although in the 1960s as this series on Pressbooks has shown, movies were not sold just on the basis of one core image, but even so a limit was generally called when the number of options reached eight or nine.

On top of that, the Pressbook writers provided interesting copy for editors who might file a snipper or two around the movie’s launch. Arlene Dahl, for instance, contended that a large proportion of the most prominent women in history – Salome, Cleopatra, Elizabeth I – had, like her, red hair. Writing a syndicated beauty column, Dahl also offered advice on wearing perfume.

Eli Wallach put forward a convincing argument for remaining a supporting actor. “Get your name above the title,” he opined, “and if you make a hit you have to play the same thing over and over – the actor gets sick of the monotony and sooner or later so does the public.” Polly Bergen, who based her screen wardrobe on Jackie Kennedy, argued that ordinary women were well turned out in America whereas abroad that was the preserve of the wealthy. Starting out in Wisconsin Fred MacMurray scraped paint off cars for $20 a week.

To get exhibitors in the mood to sell a political comedy, the Pressbook offered eight “punchy and funny” spoof campaign posters, suggesting they be positioned in door panels or along one wall in a straight line and on a voting booth in the lobby. Expanding on the concept in their local area, exhibitors were encourage to recruit an important woman “holding some office” who could be corralled into acting as a “president” embarking on an imitation tour backed up by supporters carrying placards.

Silent screen star Carmel Myers, who manufactured a fragrance line for men, was enrolled by Warner Brothers for a nationwide tour in part talking about the subject that is key to the movie’s subplot – “can a beautiful and glamorous woman be a successful business executive?” A high-flying vamp of the silent era, Myers starred in Ben-Hur: A  Tale of the Christ (1925) and later had her own short-lived television series before entering the beauty business.

Except twice, each of the other myriad adverts stuck with a photo of MacMurray wearing a hat. The taglines, running on the theme of what happened to the female President’s male consort, varied only slightly. “When a woman becomes President, what happens when her poor husband becomes First Lady?” / “President arrives in New York today, leaves First Lady home with knitting”/ “Women rise, men revolt, everybody cheer”

Inevitably, advertising focused on politics. “Republicans and Democrats agree this is the funniest picture you’ll ever see” / “First male First Lady takes Washington by storm” / “Is America prepared for the first woman president and her First Lady?

Some taglines took a different approach. “This year a woman will be elected President of U.S….and a man will be elected to the Comedy Hall of Fame” /”Vote the sdtraight ticket (the movie ticket, we mean” / “When you cast your next vote for President, be sure to do it at (this) theatre” / My father is the hostess with the moistest.” 

Selling James Bond – Pressbook for “From Russia with Love” (1963)

United Artists had two concepts in mind when it came to marketing the second in the James Bond series From Russia with Love (1963). The first, and quite audacious notion, was to tell anyone who hadn’t seen Dr No (1962) much they had missed. Producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman reckoned 69 million moviegoers across the world had seen Dr No, but America only accounted for a small fraction of that total. So their mission was to ensure that American audiences did not miss out again on the “throbbing world of hot-blooded excitement.”

To target that marketplace, the adverts were more like a relaunch, not a sequel, and the taglines began with “Meet James Bond, Secret Agent 007.” And then, “For those unlucky few who missed Dr No…You are unprepared for the sophisticated mayhem and polished lovemaking. The James Bond bug has not bitten you. But take heart! There is still time to jump on the Bond bandwagon with the second James Bond adventure From Russia with Love. See it and we guarantee – you will be hooked for good.” The final exhortation: “Don’t you think it’s time you met secret agent 007?”

But of course James Bond already had some kind of fan club in the States. “James Bond Is Back!” screamed the alternative advertisements. For both, however, the emphasis was on the new. “His incredible new women! His new incredible enemies! His new incredible adventures!”

“Target: the unkillable James Bond 007. Blast him! Seduce him! Bomb him! Strangle him!” The tone of the adverts suggested something entirely new. While heroes in thrillers could expect to face danger at every turn, and while a romance might sweeten the pot, there would not be a selection of alluring scantily-attired women. “For those who saw Dr No, consider yourself fortunate. Now you are prepared for the further fantastic adventures of that master of intrigue and women, secret agent 007 James Bond, join him in his new thriller From Russia with Love.

To whet the appetite of local newspapermen there was a host of snippets. Oxford University had organized an 007 Society whose members included three lords and the heir to one of the the country’s largest department stores. While James Bond never uses a Windsor knot in his ties, Sean Connery does. Ian Fleming’s Bond novels had sold 30 million copies including six million of From Russia with Love. Four Istanbul mosques featured in the new film as well as an underground cistern a millennium old.

Door posters five feet high.

Beauty queens were always a good bet for coverage – Miss Universe runner-up Daniela Bianchi  won the role of James Bond’s girlfriend after a screen test and former Miss Israel Aliza Gur and former Miss Jamaica Martine Beswick played the fighting gypsy girls. Lotte Lenya was married to Kurt Weill who, with Berthold Brecht, wrote The Threepenny Opera. Sean Connery was fitted out by his own Savile Row tailor Anthony Sinclair and during filming got through ten customized shirts, eight suits, two top coats and a dress suit.

Highly sought-after these days in the memorabilia market are the door panels – measuring 20 inches x 60 inches – which exhibitors would stick to lobby doors but which could also be utilized as displays in stores. Signet brought out a movie tie-in paperback which came with its own promotional material. As there were already other books in the series, booksellers would be inclined to set up a Bond display. As well as the John Barry original soundtrack album, other artists recording material from the film included Matt Monro, Jackie Gleason, Kenny Ball, Al Caiola and Si Zetner, all creating promotional tools.

“Bondmanship” was the overall name given to lifestyle items worn by Bond or which he might wear so tie-ups with fashion stores and retailers were encouraged “no direct endorsement is necessary.” So, for example, restaurants were encouraged to offer “ a menu good enough for James Bond.” It didn’t matter that Bond did not wear a manufacturer’s shoes, ties or suits in the film, just that he might wear them if they were of sufficient quality.

The marketeers came up with a simple stunt: send a set of keys to a newspaper, turn up the next day with a dispatch box handcuffed to your wrist, open it and find inside various promotional items. Or the keys don’t open the case and you need to send for a locksmith. Either way it was important to have a photographer to hand.

Selling The Rat Pack: Pressbook for “Robin and the 7 Hoods” (1965)

Warner Brothers pushed the boat out for Robin and the 7 Hoods with this lavish Pressbook. Apart from roadshows, most pressbooks of the era were around 16-pages A3. But this stretched to 28 pages with a tremendous range of advertisements, taglines and tie-ups plus, easier to accommodate from the exhibitor’s perspective, a healthy number of relatively straightforward marketing suggestions. On top of that, always a great incentive for cinema managers to rack their brains for good promotional ideas, the studio was offering seven cash prizes worth a total of $1,500 – about $14,000 today – for the best individual campaigns as well as a “special bonus prize” of the golf clubs used by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bing Crosby for the most original stunt.

With Pressbooks popping through a cinema manager’s door at the rate of one or two or three a week – dependent on how often a picture house changed its program – this one would certainly have made an impact, not so much from its size, but its commitment to the exhibitor. Most Pressbooks began either with information on the stars and the filming or with the advertisements and there was a sense of exhibitors being called upon to fit in with a pre-conceived campaign. Warner Brothers was not the first studio to go down the prize-giving route as a means of attracting attention, but in making the competition the first item on the promotional agenda – two of the first four pages were devoted to it – it certainly ensured it was high priority.

Following the competition came four pages of suggestions for gimmicks, stunts and tie-ins. WB had already tied-up with the The Antique Automobile Club of America and its members were being encouraged to lend out their vehicles to any movie theater planning a stunt. Exhibitors were told that car owners were “pleased to show them off.” There were over 100 chapters/branches of the Club so no shortage of eager participants. A parade of old-time cars in the town or a rally outside the cinema or even a race was guaranteed to attract publicity.

The Roaring 20s was another concept easily adopted – flapper fashions, the Charleston being performed outside the theatre or a dance competition, or girls dressed up in the outfits of the day strolling around town “carrying phonographs and camp stools; at busy intersections they can sit down and play one of the Robin tunes.”  Reward posters could be put up for famous gangsters of the speakeasy period, with photographs of the film’s characters included. A jazz parade was another possibility complete with straw hats and blazers. Setting up a gambling den was another suggestion using “actual gambling equipment captured by the police.”

And all this was before exhibitors could let fly with ideas based on the archery motif since “the words Robin Hood and archery and practically interchangeable.” Archery contests could be staged in a sports store, park, shopping mall or in front of the cinema. Robin Hood hats made of simulated felt with a feather sticking out – or bullet-riddled – were available at a low cost and ideal for giving away to children and to be worn by ushers and other staff as well as employees in other organisations participating in any promotion. Or just handed out to a local restaurant.

On top of that, since this Rat Pack picture was actually a denoted musical in which all the principals sang, there was the best tie-in of all – an original soundtrack album, an easy marketing tool for record shops. WB had also arranged for a book tie-in with Pocket Books, novelization written by Jack Pearl and stocked in 120,000 outlets.  The record, promised WB, would be “on every radio station night and day.” Even though Sinatra was no longer a top recording artist – “My Kind of Town” did not break the Cashbox Top 100 singles chart – his voice and that of his co-stars were exactly the kind of easy listening that appeared to radio addicts fed up with the British Beatle invasion.

The advertising campaign was fairly straightforward consisting of as many of the stars as could be crammed onto a poster – usually the main four plus either Barbara Rush or Peter Falk, occasionally all six. The tagline went hip: “Like we’ve taken the Robin Hood legend and changed the bows and arrows to machine guns…! Like with songs yet!…Like Wild.” The last word might be changed to “Wow.”  An alternate tagline along similar lines went: “In Merrie Olde Chicago, in the days when King Al ruled the land…” And “Gather round all ye swingers and hear this…we’re doing the Robin Hood legend in Chicago’s wildest era…with songs yet!” A final version ran: “Warner Bros right merrily presents the wild idea of doing the Robin Hood legend in Chicago’s wildest era.”

With the box office and recording firepower of Sinatra, Martin, Davis and Crosby and the range of promotional ideas, there was little need to jazz up the Pressbook with journalistic nuggets, but WB did not stint on this count. The appearance of Edward G. Robinson in the genre and studio where he made his name three decades before in the like of Little Caesar was too good an opportunity to miss – more so when the wardrobe department discovered his suit size had not changed. Other cinematic stalwarts from the early gangster picture days included Allen Jenkins and Jack La Rue, now a restaurant owner and making his first WB movie in 23 years.

Elegance was a keynote for Barbara rush’s femme fatale. Designer Don Feld created a range of dinner gowns, coats and negligees which served almost as a disguise for the hard-as-nails operator. Commented Rush, “I am as tough as daddy and just as blood-thirsty. But I play it sweet throughout and never become hard or evil. The role has more substance when you realize this sweet girl has the ruthlessness of a cobra.” Pool hustler Harold ‘Red’ Baker was hired to teach Dean Martin how to perform like a champion player and also set up the shots for the game between Sinatra and Martin. Baker. But the editorial section ran for only two pages, which was a mighty small proportion of the overall Pressbook.

Selling the Exotic – Pressbook for “24 Hours to Kill” (1965)

No matter how small a picture, its budget had to stretch to a Pressbook. Even if the movie would end up on the bottom half of a double bill or a drive-in programmer and did not have much to shout about, it still needed a Pressbook. Low-budget films meant low-budget advertising campaigns unless your name was Joe Levine who often spent far more promoting films than he did making them.

The Pressbook was essential because it was the source of the movie’s adverts that could appear in a newspaper – these came in a variety of sizes so an  exhibitor could remove the one most relevant and take it down to their local newspaper to make up the display advertisement. In the pre-digital era, it was a crude as that, adverts were effectively cut and pasted.

While some Pressbooks could run to 16, 20 or 24 A3 pages in full color, the most basic requirement would be four pages, enough to show the ads and get the basic message across. This was of the basic variety. In this case, ads took up the first two-and-a-half pages, leaving a half-page to list the credits and explain the plot. The final page contained information about the stars..  

Perhaps as revenge for producer Harry Alan Towers not coughing up enough money for a decent Pressbook, his name was left off it. Instead, filing his slot was Oliver A. Unger, more famous as a pioneer of syndicated television, importer of foreign films and producer of The Pawnbroker (1964). In reality, he was an executive producer, in those days that function being fulfilled by someone who either invested in the picture upfront or once filming was complete bought territorial rights.

Artwork was minimal, one main advertisement, one alternative. But more or less the same taglines appear in both. Hoping to hook in the audiences was the notion of “perfumed harem…in mysterious Beirut…where every hour can be your wildest.. and your last.”

Usually films like these boasting a flotilla of European beauties devoted some space to explaining their origins and puffing up their potential. Not so here. Space is just too tight. The only actors covered are Lex Barker, Mickey Rooney and Walter Szelak. Strangely, no mention is made of Barker’s socko career as a German western hero – the notion that Europeans could make westerns remained absurd at this point (A Fistful of Dollars would take three years following completion to reach U.S. screens).

According to the Pressbook, Barker more or less jumped straight from Tarzan to this kind of thriller. Though he had been out of the loin-cloth for more than a decade (Tarzan and the She-Devil, 1953, his final appearance), the 40 pictures he had made since then (including La Dolce Vita, 1960) did not merit a sentence. The Pressbook did carry a quotable quote from Barker explaining his reasons for quitting jungle life: “It made me feel like a male Bardot because I was always parading around almost nude.” This was the type of quote that only made sense until you realised that Bardot did not become a star till three years after he quit playing Tarzan. Still, who was going to argue?

A strict regimen of physical exercise allowed him to keep in the shape necessary for the film which required him to “run for his life, rescue a pretty hostess from kidnap by helicopter and fight off thug after thug.” 

Mickey Rooney gets a better write-up, especially for making the rare jump from successful child star to accepted by audiences for his adult roles. Though the writer of the Pressbook never appeared to actually go the movies. Spot the mistake in this sentence: “Last seen in runaway box office hit It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World Rooney now appears for producer Oliver A. Under in a drama equally as challenging.” That the first film was actually a comedy and not a drama never seemed to sink in.

The usual promotional material – suggestions for marketing, maybe a record of the soundtrack available, perhaps a theme song to target radio stations, various stunts – was non-existent even though the movie leant itself to a tie-in with an airline or a travel company especially as the National Lebanese Tourist Council had gone out of its way to accommodate the production.

Selling Oscar Winners – Pressbook for “The Slender Thread” (1965)

Just how do you sell a movie about a suicide to an audience for whom such a subject is still taboo? The answer is – you don’t. Instead, you fall back on your stars – and the fact that they are both Oscar winners.

We are pretty used these days to advertising campaigns, especially trailers, focusing on Academy Award recognition – The House of Gucci (2021), for example, boasting umpteen winners and nominees – but it was far rarer in the 1960s when exhibitors expected Pressbooks to provide them with sufficient marketing information to lure in the customers. Oscar success might have been mentioned in passing, forming part of a participant’s biography, but it would not be the entire focal point of the campaign.

The 16-page A3 Pressbook for The Slender Thread does nothing but. There was, of course, a link between the two stars in that Anne Bancroft recipient of the Best Actress Oscar for The Miracle Worker in 1962 had the following year presented Sidney Poitier with his Best Actor gong for Lilies of the Field (1963).

“Two Academy Award winners giving the performances of their lives” is pretty much as far as the tagline writers went in providing exhibitors with something to sell. The subsidiary tagline “when a woman’s emotions sway on a slender thread expect anything” offer little in the way of explaining the film’s content. An image of a phone plays a prominent role in artwork but again without clarifying its purpose. In much smaller writing, at the end of another reference to the Oscars, is the mention of “a motion picture rarely, if ever, surpassed in suspense” but again minus clarification.

You might actually come away with the notion that the drama takes place on the high seas since a ship features in the advertising.

The only other assistance given exhibitors came in the form of reviews which make more mention of suspense. Cue magazine termed it “gripping, bristling tension and suspense all the way.” Kate Cameron in the Daily News concurred – “a high tension suspense film” as did Alton Cook of the World Telegram (“Tantalizing Tension! Nerve-Wracking Suspense!). Nobody mentioned what caused the tension and suspense.

The best bet for tie-ins came from record stores since record label Mercury has organised a “giant merchandising campaign” promoting the Quincy Jones soundtrack. The studio took the chance that exhibitors might take it into their own hands to organise some tie-ups with beauty salons, telephone companies and discotheques since these make an appearance in the picture.     

Quite how 16 pages of the same repeated artwork was meant to inspire exhibitors into, first all, booking the picture, and then, consequently, selling it to moviegoers is never explained.

Selling Religion – “The Shoes of the Fisherman” (1968)

The Pressbook for The Shoes of the Fisherman is almost reverential in approach. For a start there is a complete lack of the madcap schemes designed by marketing men to promote the picture to the exhibitor. Nor is there any mention of the tie-ins that did exist – the book had sold seven million copies and the soundtrack by Alex North was already being acclaimed – it would be nominated for an Oscar. And there are very few of the titbits that might appeal to a local journalist.

There is only one piece of artwork, although a truncated version provides a secondary opportunity for advertising and combined with a scene from the film material for a third ad. Taglines are equally scarce. “A distinguished international cast ignites all the dramatic power…all the magnificent spectacle of Morris L. West’s best-selling novel” is all there is apart from a puff from Look magazine puff that espouses “The Shoes of the Fisherman restores faith in films.”

The better tagline, in the sense that it sold an actual story rather than promoted the ingredients, was: “A modern-day story that reaches from the shadows of the Kremlin to the splendor of the Vatican.” One further tagline gave away more of the plot: “In a last desperate attempt to prevent World War III, a secret meeting is arranged. One man is called upon to succeed where all the world leaders have failed. That man was once a prisoner in a Russian labour camp. He is now the Pope.”

So what’s left, you might ask. Well, as promised in the tagline, the “distinguished international cast” and “magnificent spectacle.” The cast was awash with Oscars. The stars included four-time Oscar winner Vittoria De Sica, two-time Oscar winner Anthony Quinn, Oscar winner Laurence Olivier and Oscar nominated Oskar Werner.

The sets were of the no-expense-spared variety. Barred from using the Vatican itself, the producers used a mixture of real locations and sets at Italian studio Cinecitta to create the necessary backdrops. The Sistine Chapel set measured 133 feet by 45 feet and the paintings that dominate the altar including “The Last Supper” were copied in Hollywood and transported piece by piece. This set actually functioned and was accurate down to the tiniest detail. The only major touch omitted from the sets was the steps leading to the altar, since that would have necessitated cumbersome ramps to track the movement of the cardinals as they cast their votes.   

Oher buildings were appropriated for modern scenes – the Palazzo dello Sport for the secret peace conference. Cardinals arriving to vote were filmed at Fiumicino airport and Stazione Termini railroad station. Other locations included the Palazzo Farnese at Capranola used for scenes of the breaking of the old Pope’s seals, the Church of San Andrea della Valle for the interior of St Peter’s for the papal coronation, and Castello San Angleo, Biblioteca Vallicelliani and Palazzo Barberini.

Incidental information, the kind that journalists could use to augment their material, was scant. Author Morris L. West had once been a monk; bit part actor Clive Revill had been knifed in his previous film by Burt Kwouk; stage actress Barbara Jefford was appearing in only her third film and her role as a cerebral wife was in stark contract to her debut as the sensual Molly Bloom in Ulysses (1967); small-screen star David Janssen of The Fugitive played a small-screen reporter; and Oskar Werner had turned down over a 100 screen roles if they interfered with his commitment to the stage.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.