Selling Sharif – The Pressbook for “Mayerling” (1969)

MGM didn’t know how to sell this. So they came up with three different campaigns. The first was the classical illustration of stars Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve about to kiss. This image was used for the film’s launch in the U.K. and at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. The artwork could be augmented if need be by various scenes from the film. You would categorize this as the straightforward romantic sell. Sharif after all was the most famous romantic idol of the decade following the monumental success of Doctor Zhivago (1965).

But this was the more liberalized 1969 rather the restrained mid-decade so MGM offered exhibitors the opportunity to promote the picture as a more salacious number, not overdone sexually since that would defeat the purpose of achieving a rating designed to attract the widest possible adult audience, but nonetheless touching on enough of the risqué to satisfy modern cinemagoing taste.

Of the two alternatives, one was considerably more spicy than the other. Using the tagline “No one woman could satisfy him…until he fell in love” this presented Sharif as wanton playboy, wine glass in hand, cavorting with cleavage-ridden woman.  The other approach, though technically more reserved, was as provocative since it highlighted Deneuve’s role as a high-class sex worker in Belle de Jour (1967), the sensational arthouse breakout. The connection would not be lost on the more sophisticated members of the audience.

Nor did the Pressbook avoid the more intimate elements of the drama and in fact the biggest article in the promotional material concerned the “emotional incest” between Sharif as the Crown Prince and his mother played by Ava Gardner – “the abnormally close relationship between the two was noted again and again in records of the era” – and in their first scene together “looked like lovers to the silver screen born.”

Historical films lent themselves to the kind of detail that journalists loved and the Pressbook for a movie set in a magnificent Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century capitalized on this.  As you might expect, waltzes played a key role in the social life of high society. The Pressbook introduced newspaper editors to the concept of “left-waltzing,” a particularly energetic form of the dance performed on state occasions. This waltz had a “strict etiquette” in that it is “forbidden to reverse no matter how dizzy one gets,” explained director Terence Young. Auditioning for extras to participate was made simpler by eliminating anyone who collided with another dancer.

The Pressbook, unusually, also casts light on directorial technique, again in reference to a waltz. This is the one where Omar Sharif scandalizes the court by opening a ball by dancing with his mistress Catherine Deneuve. Young wanted to create the effect of the whirling couple revolving into a world of their own.  To achieve this the stars had to “dance in a perfect circle, keeping a constant distance in the center of the ballroom floor from director of photography Henri Akedan and his revolving camera.”

Initially, Young resorted to “two elaborate and – as it proved – punishing devices since the dance had to be done over and over.” The first saw camera and stars balanced at opposite ends of a rotating “see-saw.” But this moved so fast Sharif lost his balance and Deneuve suffered from dizziness. Next, they were connected by a lasso but this metal contraption struck them so often in the hips it was abandoned. Finally, they reverted to the simplest of solutions, working round a circle chalked on the floor. 

To ensure authenticity, Young was able to film at the Hapsburg Palace, the Karlschirche and the Schonbrunn Palace. However, such was the urge to preserve these antiquities, the stars were not permitted to sit on any of the chairs or even get anywhere close to them, so it was standing room only for days at a time. However, the Vienna Opera House of 1888 was reconstructed on Parisian sound stages.

The marketers were able to take advantage of the current fashion for the vintage look as pioneered by the likes of The Beatles. Under the heading “Groovy Gear,” the promotional gurus encouraged exhibitors to target the university crowd and metropolitan areas with a preponderance of young people who would appreciate the “freaky clothes” and “up-town hippy clothing” like the military garb, long topcoats, high boots and fur hats worn in the film. Even so, the Pressbook originators were remarkably unimaginative when it came to dreaming up stunts and promotional gimmicks. Their best suggestions were a Catherine Deneuve look-alike contest and a competition to list all Omar Sharif’s roles. Rather more ambitious was the idea of inviting high school pupils to write an essay on aspects of the period.

Selling Ursula Andress – The Pressbook for “She” (1965)

Dr No (1962) had only enjoyed moderate success in the United States so it was far from given that Ursula Andress meant much to American audiences. The first Bond outing had finished 43rd in the annual box office rankings and Andress had not exactly swept Elvis Presley off his feet in her only Hollywood offering so far, Fun in Acapulco. However, she was the immediate beneficiary of one of the most extraordinary pieces of luck to fall to a barely-known star.

The gargantuan success of Goldfinger (1964) had sent studio United Artists back to the vaults to resurrect the first two films in the Bond series and put them out in a double bill – the first of many such Bond pairings – in April 1965, a couple of months before She hit the big screen in the U.S. Dr No/From Russia with Love was a record-breaking sensation, attracting three times the numbers that had attended the first release of Dr No.  So outstanding a performer was the double bill that it hit number five on the annual box office chart.   So by the time She was launched Ursula Andress’s iconic bikini-clad entrance in Dr No was fresh in audience memories.

MGM, the U.S. distributor of the Hammer picture, had wisely not counted on the unexpected resurrection of Dr No and had a stack of other promotional wheezes up its sleeve. The 12-page A3 Pressbook kicked off with a “phone stunt” whereby exhibitors would set up a message on a telephone line purportedly from “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.”  The statuesque figure of Ursula Andress in figure-clinging costume was a natural for a standee in a cinema lobby as was the setting up of an artificial flame.

There were any number of ideas for competitions held in conjunction with a radio station or local newspaper: famous women who had ended up as film titles – Cleopatra and so on; famous female rulers; or a list of “love goddesses” to whose ranks it was decreed Andress deserved a place – in posters MGM had no hesitation is calling the actress “the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Journalists were to be hooked into running editorial pieces by a variety of interesting facts that could be cobbled together for an interesting article. The luxurious furs used to decorate the queen’s inner sanctum had been insured for $300,000. Andress had worn a total of nine gowns, designed by Cal Tomms, but none weighed more than a few pounds, the gossamer-like material both free-flowing and clinging to her natural assets. The crown weighed 3lb, a heavy object to carry around on your head for a week, as Andress had. Her cloak contained 3,000 feathers. No doubles were used for the duel between John Richardson and Christopher Lee, both being accomplished swordsmen.

There were human interest items as well. Both Andress and Richardson had previously signed contracts with major studios without ever being given any roles. Andress, shy in real life, had learned to claim to be someone lese when approached by fans.  Filming Dr No, she was grateful it was shot in Jamaica: “I didn’t want anyone to see what a fool I might be making of myself,” she said.

However, she was certainly self-assured in general. Interviewed exclusively for the Pressbook, she said, “Beauty gets you everywhere. It is a gate opener. It takes a long time to discover a good mind, but a beautiful woman attracts attention right away. Only stupid people think that a woman who is attractive must be silly.”

She added: “I will give you a list of the qualities that are most important for a woman – emotional range, beauty, intelligence, education and talent. Emotions are the most important, the ability to feel and love. Beauty next, and intelligence after that. Education is less important than intelligence because if you have the latter you’ll acquire education.

“I have never made a study of acting,” she explained. “I just do it if and when I feel like it. I have no desire to work on the stage and what I do in front of the camera is instinctive and spontaneous. My best takes are the first. Repetition distracts from the quality of my performance. Ayesha in She was a difficult part because this mysterious queen is 2,000 years old  and I had to be very stylized.”

Andress was central to the advertising campaign and although there were a number of different adverts, the actress featured in all, the only difference being her position on the poster, left, right or central. “She had waited 2,000 years waiting for her lover to be reborn – the lover she had slain by her own hand.” To whet audience appetite, a variety of scenes were included at the foot of some posters. 

To grab the attention of the exhibitor, and ensure full cooperation in selling the picture, MGM was offering a treasure chest of rewards for the best local campaign – a total of $10,000 in prize money. To gain additional publicity there was a single record and, more important, a new tie-in edition of the famed novel by H. Rider Haggard, which had already sold 20 million copies in America.

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