Selling Films Joe Levine Style

After the monumental success of Hercules, exhibitor-turned-distributor Joseph E. Levine pretty much thought he could sell pictures to theater owners on the basis of his name alone. Which explains the absence of any mention of star Steve Reeves (of Hercules fame, ironically enough) from the first seven pages of the Pressbook for Thief of Baghdad (1961).

The Pressbook itself was guaranteed to garner attention from its unusual shape and size. Most Pressbooks are standard A4 – roughly 8 inches wide and 12 inches high – but this easily exceeded the norm. The front page was 22 inches wide by 17 inches with a flap that extended the height to 29 inches. Turn the next page and it became bigger again – 33 inches wide by 22 inches high – and remained that size for another ten pages.

What the first seven pages sold was the Levine name and how he was going to promote the picture to moviegoers. He promised national television and radio advertising saturation. In addition, he supplied free of charge two trailers for television and four for radio which theater owners could use for supplementary local use.

Twenty thousand toy stores were lined up to sell merchandising – “an elaborate array of novelty items, hobby kits, puzzles and games.” Window displays were a key tool in marketing films to local moviegoers.

In addition, Dell had published two tie-ins – a full-color comic book for children and a novelization paperback for adults. In those days books such as these were sold on news stands and revolving racks in drug stores and five-and-dime outlets as well as bookshops. For only $25 (including delivery cost) movie theaters could buy a “double-flasher” eight-foot-high standee to promote the movie in advance.

Unusually, at a time when movies came with up to seven or eight different taglines intended to appeal to different types of audiences (the exhibitor would know which one held the most appeal), Thief of Baghdad limited itself to only four. The main tagline was: “The fantastic deeds…the incredible daring of the thief who defied an empire.”

There were two main alternatives:  either “Opening wide a new world of screen wonders” or “the amazing becomes the incredible the fantastic becomes the real.” All three taglines were quantified with the addition of a number of “screen thrills” such as flying horses, faceless fighters, man-devouring trees, a one-faced army, the giant killer of the sea and a “harem of mystery.”  Finally, there was the option of “he was a score of lovers…a hundred fighters…a thousand thieves…a man in a million.”  

Costuming ushers in “typical Baghdad wear” and calling upon local muscle men to don similar garb was suggested as another marketing ploy.  

Otherwise – which seemed the least of Levine’s concerns – there was actually quite a lot to write home about. It was filmed in Tunisia in the Mosque of the Barber – featuring 600 columns transported from Carthage – and the Mosque of the Sabre in the oasis city of Kairwan. The filmmakers had to devise their own ancient marketplaces since the ones in existence were too modernized. Local extras were used to add further authenticity. An ancient reservoir dating back to 700AD was drained and transformed into a prison.

The special effects by Thomas Howard included a winged horse and a forest of man-eating trees. To create the effect of a brigade of horsemen all in the image of the titular thief, Edwards achieved the illusion by having the men wear masks of Reeves’ face.  

Italian female lead Georgia Moll made her Hollywood debut in The Quiet American (1958) while model Edy Vessel, who refused to give out her vital statistics for publicity purposes, was cast as a seductive temptress.

Reeves, famed for sticking to a particular diet, brought with him 24 jars of honey and 40 pounds of nuts and made yoghurt from camel’s milk.  

This was the sixth version of the film, the first starring Douglas Fairbanks in 1924 followed sixteen years later by the British-made Alexander Korda iteration. Further versions from a variety of sources appeared in 1949, 1952 and 1960.

The Giants of Thessaly (1960) ***

Spoiler alert – this film contains no giants unless you count the one-eyed Cyclops. It’s the Jason and the Argonauts story with a lot of political shenanigans thrown in.

Even lacking the Ray Harryhausen special effects of the film covering the same ground a few years later and without the kind of budget dropped into the lap of a Stanley Kubrick it’s not a bad stab at retelling the myth. And Carlo Rambaldi (later the creator of E.T.) does a decent job of the Cyclops at a time when special effects were primitive.

This belongs to the Italian-made “peplum” genre, out of which came Hercules (1958). What struck me most was the director’s use of the camera, very often tracking a character in scenes that would otherwise have been static. There are virtually no close-ups and hardly any medium close-ups.

It’s quite strange to see. On the one hand a moving camera is an expense and on the other hand lack of close-ups saves money, so it’s possible the money spent on one technique was the result of saving money from another. Alternatively, much of the director’s work has gone into arranging characters in group scenes in such a way that dramatic impact is sustained while not moving the camera.

There’s enough political chicanery going on to keep two different plots going. Back in Jason’s homeland, where he is a king, an usurper not only seeks his throne but wants his wife and tries to deceive the population into thinking Jason is dead. Meanwhile, Jason faces mutiny on board the Argo and then the temptations of the Siren, battle with the Cyclops, and then a final bold act to reclaim the Golden Fleece.

Possibly the best scene is kept for the end, when the Argo arrives home with its own brand of deception. The film is topped off with a clever trick. Sometimes what we would now view as a B-film, ideal Saturday matinee material, sticks in the mind because it has been the proving ground for a future director or star but writer-director Riccardo Freda had already turned out Spartacus the Gladiator (1953) and Theodora, Slave Empress (1954).

Star Roland Carey was unusual in this field because he was actually a trained actor rather than hired for his torso, but this did not exactly stoke his career – his appearance in Fall of the Roman Empire (1962) was uncredited. Female lead Ziva Rodann was unusual, too, in that she was Israeli rather than Italian, had appeared in Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) and second- billed in exploitationer Macumba Love (1960) and would later play Nefertiti in the Batman television series.

If you go in not expecting much, you might get a surprise, though, be warned the acting is wooden and other special effects, such as the storm, not quite in the Rambaldi class.   

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