Sixty Years Ago – Xmas at the Movies

Setting aside the unusual circumstances of this year, we can generally count ourselves lucky these days – taking 2019 as a more standard example – if we are able to have five or six new films opening around Xmas. Hogging the limelight in the weekend before Xmas in 2109 was Star Wars Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker – the last in the current trilogy and the final part of the saga which had begun nearly half a century before – and which took the box office crown by a considerable distance from the weekend’s only other wide release opener, misconceived musical Cats. On the weekend after Xmas the wide release top spots were held by Greta Gerwig’s remake of Little Women with Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson plus animated feature Spies in Disguise while in much smaller openings were Sam Mendes future Oscar-winner 1917 and crime drama Just Mercy with Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.

That was far from the case sixty years ago. In 1960 three times as many movies opened during the festive season. A total of 18 movies were launched before, during and just after Xmas Day.

In that era, of course, the wide release was effectively in its infancy so most films would usually open in one cinema on Broadway (though a few combined that with a showing in a smaller first-run arthouse elsewhere in the city) in New York and single cinemas in the center of other major cities. The success of Ben-Hur (1959) had lit a fire under the roadshow and the arrival of these behemoths would begin a process that would see several cinemas out of commission as regards new pictures for several months of the year. Even so, regardless of how films were released, cinemagoers had a far wider choice at Xmas in 1960.

In the week before Xmas (starting December 21, 1960) all eyes in New York were focused on the roadshow opening of Otto Preminger’s Exodus starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint. United Artists had sunk colossal amounts into the picture. But it was competing at the box office with another SEVEN new big-time openings – more than opened during the entire Xmas period in 2019.

Two Elvis Presley pictures opened on the same day in New York – Paramount’s G.I. Blues and the western Flaming Star directed by Don Siegel from Twentieth Century Fox. Disney also chose that day to launch its spectacular Swiss Family Robinson. In addition, there was Jerry Lewis in comedy Cinderfella, fantasy adventure The 3 World of Gulliver, British comedy Make Mine Mink with Terry-Thomas and Stanley Donen’s romantic comedy The Grass is Greener with a topline cast of Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons.

In addition, some big-name stars were attached to movies that opened on December 21 in the smaller arthouses. Ronald Neame’s military drama Tunes of Glory with Oscar-winning Alec Guinness feuding with John Mills broke the box office record at the Little Carnegie. Sophia Loren and Maurice Chevalier headlined A Breath of Scandal, directed by Michael Curtiz. Also setting up shop in the arties were Roy Boulting’s  British comedy A French Mistress with Cecil Parker and James Robertson Justice, French veteran Jean Gabin in Rue de Paris and another French film Sins of Youth.

To avoid being trampled in the rush MGM held off another day before unveiling comedy  Where the Boys Are starring Yvette Mimieux, Paula Prentiss, Dolores Hart and George Hamilton.  Then, as now, Xmas Day was an important day in the release calendar, reserved for the brave (or the foolish) since it generally took a very special picture to opt for that slot. In 1960, two  very big fish made their play.  First up was MGM’s roadshow remake of the 1931 Oscar-winning western Cimarron this time round directed by Anthony Mann and starring the ever-dependable  Glenn Ford opposite French star Maria Schell. The city ‘s biggest cinema, the legendary Radio City Music Hall, was turned over to Fred Zinnemann’s Australian drama The Sundowners pairing Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr.

Two days later it was the turn of the final roadshow of the year Pepe with Cantinflas and an all-star international cast including Maurice Chevalier and Bing Crosby. Rounding out the Xmas season on December 28 came Bob Hope-Lucille Ball comedy The Facts of Life.

Films that had opened pre-Xmas had to show exceptional box office stamina in order to be kept on in their cinemas in the face of this onslaught of new films. Heading up that list, of course, was Ben Hur, now in its second year on Broadway. Spartacus starring Kirk Douglas was entering its eleventh week, John Wayne’s The Alamo its ninth, and Elizabeth Taylor incendiary drama Butterfield 8 its sixth.

Astonishing to think of the overwhelming choice offered to moviegoers then compared with the sparse selection these days.  

The “Psycho” Revolution

It wasn’t just that Alfred Hitchcock broke all the rules in Psycho, turning horror on its head with the shower scene, introducing themes like mother-fixation and cross-dressing and delivering the first bona fide serial killer to American audiences.

He also took on the exhibition business by insisting that nobody was allowed into theaters after the film had started.

This went completely against the way films were normally shown. Patrons were accustomed to entering a movie theater whenever they liked, be it beginning, middle or end and then staying on till they came to the section they had seen before. Hitchcock was effectively calling an end to this practice.

Exhibitors were so used to customers going to the movies as a matter of course, as a regular habit, that few cinemas outside of arthouses and those in city centers even bothered to list start times. Although tacitly endorsed by exhibitors, this system was a menace to business since there was no way of knowing how many people were likely to vacate their seats at any given time and the fact that they did so intermittently interrupted the viewing of those still watching the picture.

Exhibitors were already investigating new methods of keeping their customers, including setting up their own production companies and buying up old films to present as reissues to make up for the shortage of new movies.

The Psycho “see it from the beginning” gimmick was initially viewed as exactly that – a gimmick. But when customers obliged without any particular fuss, standing patiently in line in the lobby or outside while one show vacated, this seemed to many indicative of a change in audience perspective. Many exhibitors wanted to take advantage of the potential to change moviegoing habits.  

“A new concept in motion picture promotion – building appreciation of the merchandise by customers – is being undertaken by segments of the industry,” said Hy Hollinger in Variety. “The idea involves a revolutionary change in the presentation of films in theaters with the industry engaging in a vast educational campaign to indoctrinate the public.”

“The public must be taught to accept starting times,” became a mantra. A more orderly approach would lead to greater appreciation of the films being screened. For once, America wanted to follow the Europe. A system of fixed schedules operated in Europe.

There were already “significant signs that the public prefer to see pictures from the beginning.” Exhibitors had registered more telephone calls asking about start times and more tickets were being sold just prior to the film beginning.

The Psycho sensation had kicked off another experiment. The film was being shown in New York nabes concurrent with its ninth week in first run at the DeMille and Baronet theaters in Manhattan. Usually, films were clear of first run commitments before launching on the circuits.   

And there were yet other changes afoot. Two circuits in New York – Loews and Century – had shifted back the start time of the main feature from 10pm by an hour or more, in the case of Century to a fixed 8.40pm which allowed moviegoers to get home in time for the eleven o’clock news. New York also led the way in combining first run in big Broadway houses with a concurrent booking in an eastside arthouse – Sons and Lovers (the only genuine arthouse offering), Psycho and Portrait in Black among those benefitting from the practice.

In addition, Psycho was considered responsible for another psychological phenomenon. It was asserted by Paramount publicists that the long lines of people standing outside the theater waiting to see the film “plants in people who had no desire to see the picture the seeds of desire to do so.”

Eroding the double bill mentality was also seen as a way of setting a more rigid approach of start times. The double bill was already under pressure because the number of movies being made was much lower than a decade before. Some theaters had taken to augmenting a single bill with a 30-minute short rather than a full feature.

Arthouse audiences had already accepted that the price of their ticket entitled them to only one movie, not two. Single bills allowed a theater more showings during the day, thus increasing potential receipts. When Psycho went into the circuits it was as a single bill with five or six showings scheduled.  

The roadshow was still in its infancy, Ben-Hur and a handful of other films leading the way, although spectacles like Spartacus, Exodus and The Alamo were on the horizon. Roadshows were presented as separate performances so no waste of seating capacity.

Roadshows and a film like Psycho had something else in common that augured well for a future where “grind” was eliminated. People accepted separate performances for roadshow or an uncommonly attractive feature like Psycho because they wanted specifically to see those particular pictures, not because they routinely went to the movies with little regard for what was actually being shown.

In just 38 weeks in a limited number of theaters presenting the picture in a limited number of showings at a set start time, Ben-Hur had already taking $7 million at the box office.  At Loew’s State in New York it had rolled up $1.2 million, in Los Angeles crossed the million-dollar mark and close to that figure in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Psycho was on the way to being one of the biggest grossers of the year.

With Hollywood still battling the encroaching threat of television, and television beginning to snare the first tranche of 1950s movies, it appeared that exhibitors had found a way of guaranteeing survival. But whether these new ideas would be sustained was another story.

SOURCES: Hy Hallinger, “1960 Reasoning: Teach Appreciation, Prepare Public for Single Feature European-Style Fixed Schedules,” Variety, Aug 3, 1960, p3; Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere, A History of the Hollywood Wide Release 1913-2017 (McFarland, 2019), 117-134; “May Shift Main Feature Hour,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 13; “Gotham Playoff Revolution,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 13; “Re Broadway & Eastside Day-Dating,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 13; “Is a Queue Itself Best Form of Sell?,” Variety, Aug 10, 1960, 13.  

In the News: July 1960

ADVANCE BOOKING REACHES NEW HEIGHTS

When these days you casually book your movie tickets online for a screening a week or a month ahead, you might not be aware it was not always so easy to book in advance. Sixty years ago it was a rarity. You had to wait in line outside the theater like everybody else.

The emergence of the roadshow at the tail end of the 1950s changed all that. Then you could book by mail (snail mail not email), filling out a booking form with your choice of seating and date and send it off with a check or money order to the theater and wait for tickets to come back a week later. Advance bookings quickly become a measure of how well a roadshow would perform.

So in summer 1960 United Artists were cock-a-hoop in reporting that Exodus, not due out for another six months, had racked up a record $700,000 advance. At first this cash just rolled around in the bank accounts of the designated theater, but in the 1970s studios realized that it was in large part their money and that was when they started demanding upfront guarantees.

STILLS GO UPMARKET

A new trend in stills photography took root. Studios began hiring world-famous snappers. Heading up the trend, United Artists sent nine photographers from international agency Magnum Photos to Reno, Nevada, to provide atmospheric pictures during the shooting of John Huston’s The Misfits. The big names included Eve Arnold, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Inge Morath. They were paid substantial amounts, far more than regular stills photographers. The best known earned $5,000 a week. This was an investment in a name since the idea was that top-class magazines would be more likely to feature a photographic spread on a movie should the pictures come with the cachet of a recognised name. It proved a genius marketing idea. Top magazines took the bait. As an offshoot, and attracting another sizable slice of publicity, the work went on display at Loew’s Capitol movie house in New York as a prelude to presentation in other first run houses.

IN OTHER NEWS

Charlie Chaplin was omitted from the Hollywood Walk of Fame…The premature death at the age of 51 of Twentieth Century Fox head of production Buddy Adler opened the door for the return of Darryl F. Zanuck, thus paving the way a few years later for the legendary producer to save the studio when it almost went bust thanks to gigantic overruns on Cleopatra… Studios considered pulling back on newspaper advertising when they discovered not only were some newspapers censoring movie  ads but around 35 per cent of them refused to run reviews…In the first push in what would turn out to be a long-term marketing campaign for The Greatest Story Ever Told director George Stevens hired an international head of public relations and shortly after issued an advertisement that will forever be a blot on the copybook of John Wayne, who was the first star to be signed.   

Sources: Variety – Jul 6, July 13, Jul 20, Jul 27, 1960; “Photographic Exhibition for The Misfits,” Box Office Showmandiser section, Jan 16, 1961, 10.