Next month in my home-town of Glasgow, they are holding a centenary screening of Safety Last! (1923), the movie in which Harold Lloyd made his name. No doubt the centenary revival machine will swing into action for Buster Keaton the following year for The Navigator (1924). But nobody thought a couple of years back to revive The Kid (1921), the first great film by Charlie Chaplin.
It was always so ever since academics got their teeth into the silent era and decided which stars should be venerated and who should be left by the wayside. Luckily, for the public, academics weren’t in charge in the 1960s. For in that decade – as in the previous half century – Charlie Chaplin had reigned supreme in the silent move reissue business. This was in part because long after the industry had switched to talkies, Chaplin stuck to making his movies silent.
The Charlie Chaplin reissue phenomenon dated back to 1915 and was synonymous with his rise to instant fame. Cinemas that could not afford his new films promptly re-hired his old ones. Old or new the public didn’t seem to care. They flocked to the cinema just the same. When there was a production slump in the aftermath of World War One, Chaplin oldies were to the fore, as they were once again in 1921. In 1926 Pathe paid $500,000 for the rights to four pre-United Artists Chaplin oldies – as much as studios were paying to make a new film.
Part of Chaplin’s deal with United Artists, the studio he helped to form, was that he owned the copyright to his movies so he could control when they were revived and prevent another studio from bringing them back to capitalize on his newer movies. That didn’t always work out because he didn’t own the rights to most of his shorts, allowing a dozen to be reissued, with sound and music, in the 1930s.
With the advent of television, where other older stars, believing their careers were in abeyance if not at a full stop, succumbed to the financial lure of the small screen, Chaplin point blank refused. Oddly enough, it was the centenary angle that played into his hands in the 1950s. He was 70 in 1959, although that decade had not proved as welcoming to his new pictures, Limelight (1951) excepted, and he was so out of favor with the establishment that his name was not among the 1500 initially considered for the Hollywood “Walk of Fame.”
By this time he was viewed as an arthouse darling. His oldies were so successful in 1959 that Modern Times (1925) after its re-launch in New York transferred successively to larger arthouses, each time setting a weekly record with finally, in an unprecedented switch, it ended up on a Broadway first run house.
The 1960s saw a general revival of interest in comedians spurred by the Robert Youngson compilations, a jukebox of silent movie snippets.
But in 1963, Chaplin struck again, this with an original reissue format that proved catnip to arthouses, and eventually, mainstream. Key to this was the idea of a “season” of his films. This was a sea change. Arthouses regularly brought back old movies, but only for a day or two at a time, and screened in this fashion a “season” of a star or director’s old hits could run for two or three months.
Chaplin decided his movies should run individually for as long as there was public demand for each movie. In other words, they would play like a new movie in a major first run house, which could hold onto pictures for as long as the owner wanted, retained “by public demand,” until they were played out. The “season” would last as long as the public deemed fit.
The experiment was launched at the mainstream Plaza in New York with City Lights (1931). The record opening of $35,600 beat highs set by Never on Sunday (1960). All the rest opened at the high end of expectations, figures met in Variety’s weekly box office roundup with headlines of “socko” or terms of disbelief. By letting the “retained by public demand” notion run to its limit, the entire season ran for 41 weeks – longer than most roadshows – and collected receipts of $658,000, as much as a long-running roadshow without any of the financial investment. It was boom-time for arthouses.
Amazingly enough, the story was repeated in the 1970s after former Columbia sales chief Mo Rothman paid $6 million (plus a percentage of the gross) for world rights to Chaplin oldies for 15 years. US rights were hived off to independent producer Oliver Unger who set about marketing The Chaplin Festival. Unger was something of a marketing whiz. He tied up a deal with the Arts Guild circuit in 15 cities – in arthouse terms this was as close to wide release as you could get. He organized a six-page feature in Vogue and a nationwide tie-in with Franklin Simon stores.
The re-launch was helped by news Chaplin would visit New York for the first time in two decades, receive a special Oscar in 1972 and finally be inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Unger lined up radio play of songs from the films and an album by Dave Brubeck consisting of theme music. As another publicity gimmick, he dreamed up a special rating – “E” for Everybody. He came up with the idea of discount tickets – in Chicago alone 34,000 moviegoers opted for the cheaper season ticket.
The consequence of Unger’s endeavors was that before the first movie was even screened he had tied up bookings with 36 cinemas for the Chaplin Festival. Modern Times (1936) was selected to spearhead the Festival, opening on December 18, 1971, at the 580-seat Lincoln Art Theater in New York to a record opening week of $26,000, an achievement repeated across the country. Modern Times ran for 14 weeks in New York and Boston. The series was so successful that the last film in the season, The Great Dictator (1940), didn’t hit New York till June 1972 and scored an opener of $26,800 and ran for another 10 weeks.
The arthouse runs were so successful that Unger managed to sell the concept to Columbia for $2 million. That shifted emphasis from arthouse to first run and showcase (multiple-run in a city or region). Modern Times beat Gone with the Wind to the title of the oldest film given showcase release in New York. Modern Times ran two weeks in showcase. The Great Dictator did so well in showcase it was the first silent film to appear in the weekly box office Top Ten. Limelight also went down the showcase route. The movies were also shown on airlines.
Later in the 1970s Paramount acquired many of Chaplin’s earlier shorts and sent them into the 16mm university campus market. Towards the end of the decade, with Chaplin to the fore, Kino international created a Silent Clowns Festival to coincide with the Water Kerr book of the same name. It ran for five weeks at the Eighth St Playhouse in New York.
Without doubt Chaplin was the all-time reissue champ. For over six decades, the public turned out in droves to see his movies and his revival box office was more than all the other silent stars in reissue combined.
SOURCE: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You: A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016), p10, 20, 22, 23, 25-29, 32, 35, 37, 39, 40, 70, 75, 193, 212, 222, 232, 255, 256, 281, 285. In the book – which runs to 250,000 words – there are pages and pages of references to Chapln reissues so forgive me if I don’t quote them all here.