Selling Sex – The Pressbook for “A House Is Not a Home” (1964)

Selling sin had never been difficult in Hollywood, dating back to the Cecil B. DeMille silent epics and more recently when a series of films challenged the Production Code, the studio’s self-governing censorship system. In most films, however, sex had been a by-product of passion, a couple in love, or a glimpse of nudity. Nobody had ever attempted to foist onto the American public a picture about transactional sex, one that examined the basest elements of male desire.

If anyone could be relied upon to sell the unusual it was producer Joseph E. Levine, the master marketeer, who had spent millions to make millions with Hercules (1958) and more recently The Carpetbaggers (1964).  Only Levine had the audacity to market the picture as a “typical American success story” and present the Polly Adler, the New York madam at the center of the movie as “not a stereotype of a procurer” but as confidante of politicians and artists.

That at least was the upfront story, the version presented in the various articles peppering the Pressbook whose sole purpose was to win over the exhibitor. When it came to the public, the approach was a mixture of the imminently direct and the subtle.

In the straightforward department were a whole string of teasers under the headlines “She’s One of Polly’s Girls” featuring glamorous women in sexy outfits to soften up the potential moviegoer in advance. The women featured in virtually every advertisement to follow as “luscious playmates,” either taking center stage or in the background.

A graphic with an illustrated sexy women in little more than bra and panties sitting atop a house also appeared in several adverts. There were several ads along these lines and several different taglines.

“The story of a House of Pleasure…The woman who ran it…The beautiful girls who lived in it…The famous and the infamous who knocked lovingly on its door” set the tone.  Taking a similar approach was the tagline: “A motion picture for those who think they’ve seen everything and those who know they haven’t”  / “the body-and-soul shocker” / “Take a tour of New York’s most famous house! Meet the madam who ran it…the beautiful dolls who lived in it…the Johnnies whose ‘jack’ built it.” (“Jack” in this case meaning “money” in case your imagination runs to more lascivious ideas.)

Going down a more playful route, certainly subtle in comparison to the rest of the advertising, was a series of small ads that focused on aspects of an ordinary home – “the welcome mat is always out” / “the door is always open” – simple illustrations without sight of a sexy inmate.

Often promotional writers struggled to find enough interesting information to fill out a Pressbook but this was littered with fascinating snippets. Shelley Winters lived up to her reputation as a colorful actress by having thrown off the set a noted columnist, a photographer, a magazine writer and the film’s press officer – all in the one afternoon. Cesar Romero who plays gangster Lucky Luciano was born close to the gangster’s birthplace and had been gifted the underworld kingpin’s watch. Polly Adler, whose story the film tells, started writing her bestseller A House Is Not A Home as a thesis as part of a degree at UCLA and later took up painting.

Meri Welles, who essays suicide Lorraine, was actually in the property business, renting homes to movie stars like Rex Harrison. Broderick Crawford had previously won an Oscar as a crooked politician, similar to his role here, in All the King’s Men. Over 1,600 young hopefuls were auditioned over 18 days for the bit parts of Polly’s girls.

Leading the tie-ins was a new edition of the bestseller which had sold over 3 million copies. Brook Benton, then a top-selling pop star, had recorded the title theme by Burt Bacharach and Hal David which managed to avoid any mention of the type of house involved and there was always sheet music to add “promotional punch.” However, based on the notion of an ordinary house, exhibitors were encouraged to get in touch with household suppliers in order to run adverts along the lines of “a house is not a home without refrigerators” linked to the name of a local company.

However, the marketing team struggled somewhat to deliver the usual roster of gimmicks that could be applied by exhibitors, falling back on contests to complete a crossword and devise a limerick. Quite who dreamed up the idea of dressing up a promotional model in cap’n’gown and have her hand out diplomas inviting people to “meet the girls at Polly-Tech” was anybody’s guess and exhibitors might find it difficult to hire someone to parade the streets as a “walking book.”

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.