Paedophilia was the last taboo according to the Production Code, the self-censorship system organised by Hollywood in 1960. You could talk about rape in explicit detail (Anatomy of a Murder, 1959) and serial killers (Psycho, 1960) were acceptable, but you must not “violate the edict against depicting sex perversion…the only subject strictly forbidden by the code.”
Without the Production Code Seal (of approval), cinema bookings would be hard to come by. Cinemas that relied on the goodwill of their patrons would not dare risk upsetting them by renting a film that had met with such disapproval.
Never Take Candy from a Stranger – a.k.a.Never Take Sweets from a Stranger – had been passed as an X-certificate in Britain, where, despite being set in Canada, it had been made. While that meant it could only be seen by adults over 18, there was no objections to it being shown. It had been shot over six weeks beginning October 1959.
It had even been positively reviewed in the U.S. where Variety called it and “an exceptionally restrained film…directed with considerable skill” and Box Office magazine, another trade weekly, rated it “touching” though warned exhibitors that the “the subject matter is not to be sold as lure.”
It did not help the case that James Carreras of British studio Hammer had set out to make a movie that was “explosively exploitable” with the aim of cracking open America on the back of “heavy-exploitation marketing such as sex crimes against children” and that the movie intended to be “as frank with its theme as was Anatomy of a Murder in dealing with rape.”
The case went to appeal. The argument in its defence, as put by Roger Garis, author of the play on which the film was based, was that the movie wasn’t so much about paedophilia but about the public’s resistance to hearing about it, and the battle by two parents to rid the community of such a menace. He pointed out that on the play’s initial opening in New York in 1954 “no review indicated in the slightest degree that the subject matter was distasteful.”
But perhaps the U.S. censors took more note of the review printed in the British Monthly Film Bulletin that complained the “film’s seriousness is dissipated by an unnecessarily horrible climax.”
Hammer appealed the decision, but the Production Code would not budge.
Despite the cautionary note struck by Box Office magazine, it was almost certain that it would be sold as exploitative, and attract the wrong sort of clientele, and for moviegoers of the wrong disposition it might well be only too big an attraction. In Britain, for example, it had been sold as a sex-shocker double bill, on the ABC circuit teamed up with Brigitte Bardot number Come Dance with Me (1959).
U.S. distributor Columbia could not be seen to be selling a movie that went against the ruling of the Production Code, but it couldn’t just dump it either since it was contractually obliged to release it. So instead it was passed on to its sub-division Lopert, an independent operation with no ostensible links to the parent company, that would find a way to get it into cinemas. Lopert would either sell it through the states rights method, divvying up the picture to a different set of local distributors who would each undertake the release in an individual state, or sell it on to another distributor, perhaps with experience of handling dodgy material. Lopert did both. Distribution was handled in some territories by Omat, which had successfully ushered La Dolce Vita (1960) through the system, and later Pathe-American, and in others by an independent.
The trade magazines had urged exhibitors to enrol the assistance of parental groups in marketing the movie, but these would hold no sway in terms of publicity. A local newspaper which had denied the movie any advertising space – a nationwide ban that followed such extreme Code disapproval – was hardly going to give it editorial coverage.
But of course there were exhibitors who would take it. Arthouses were one possibility. They had been dealing with the disreputable ever since foreign production companies realized they could bypass the Production Code. If they were not signatories, they did not have to submit their movies for assessment. That was why there was such a flood of movies from France, Sweden and Italy heralding a sensational star like Bardot or Sophia Loren and promising greater leniency towards nudity than would be acceptable to the Code.
And there were many, especially among the more articulate classes, who felt the Code was outdated anyway, and that foreign films were breaking new cinematic ground, and that the directors of such films, Ingmar Bergman, Fellini et al, should be praised rather than condemned. But it was inevitable that movies from abroad with genuine artistic purpose got mixed up with those made with purely salacious intent.
The arthouse had been compromised so much that anything that could lure in the public was fair game. Even so, most arthouses drew the line at a film about child molestation. While Never Take Candy from a Stranger did receive a number of bookings in city center U.S. houses between 1961 and 1962 they were rarely in an arthouse. Most were in cinemas accustomed to offering patrons lurid product. In Chicago, outside of the major cinemas, it went out as a double bill with Sam Peckinpah western Deadly Companions.
Tracking the release through the pages of Variety and Box Office, I discovered it had only occasionally proved a success, a holdover for a second week generally one way of demonstrating that measure.
(Note that cinema capacities were much larger than today in the multiplex era and it was far from uncommon for moviegoers to be part of a 1,000-plus audience)
In May 1961 in Boston it ran for two weeks at the 689-seater Mayflower, hitting $4,500 in the first week with a relatively small drop to $4,000 the next. In November, most likely as a filler for a movie that failed to hit its targets and was pulled early, it reached the 2,995-seat Palms in Detroit, clocking up a fair $10,000, but only permitted three days the next week, for another $3,000.
But by then a different reelase strastegy was in place. The same month in an “unusual first-run hook-up” it played a couple of drive-ins in Kansas City, those theaters were dragged into the first-run loop in the absence of other available or willing houses. One week at the 900-car Crest and the 700-car Waldo brought in a “mild” $6,000. Perhaps in a bid to secure a bigger audience it was teamed with Beware of Children (1960). But anyone expecting another dip into perversion would be disappointed for it was a British marital comedy starring Leslie Phillips.
But release was a long drawn-out process, and perhaps to limit expenditure few prints were made. And by 1962, yet another different approach was taken, targeting the arthouses. In February it reached Baltimore, $3,000 at the 860-seat Avalon, In April it lasted one week at the 238-seat Capri Art in Denver taking $900 gross at the box office.
And then, never having not scaled the heights that a movie trading on controversy might expect, it disappeared. Obviously never a contender for television, and no sign of it being shoved out during the VHS boom, when virtually any movie made was revived in the hope of snaring a few extra bucks.
It took a helluva long time for the movie to surface, but when it did, it was to plaudits.
SOURCES: “Hammer’s Slant,” Variety, October 21, 1959, p4; “Realism Outbreak in Britain,” Variety, October 31, 1959, p3; Review, Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1, 1960, p48; James Carreras, “British Horror Pix As Insurance For That Wide-Open Global B.O.,” Variety, January 6, 1960, p166; Review, Variety, March 16, 1960, p6; “Child-Molesting Theme in Abeyance,” Variety, April 27, 1960, p3; “Candy Story Author Sez Not About Perversion But Public’s Own Laxity,” Variety, May 11, 1960, p4; “Candy Loses Appeal for Code Seal,” Variety, May 18, 1960, p17; Advertisement, Variety, January 11, 1961, p14; Review, Box Office, August 21, 1961, pA1; “Says Wilmington Press Is Pre-Judging Ads,” Box Office, October 30, 1961, p15; “Set Up Pathe Campaign,” Box Office, December 18, 1961, pNE6. Box office figures from Variety issues: May 31, 1961, p9; November 22, 1961, p8-10; February 14, 1962, p8; April 18, 1962, p9.
Easy Rider, more acceptable artistically, stole Night of the Living Dead’s thunder the following year as the poster boy for a low-budget phenomenon that would, temporarily at least, usher in a new way of Hollywood thinking. But Night of the Living Dead – initially entitled Monster Flick and Night of the Flesh-Eaters – was movie-making as fairy tale, virtually a throwback to the old trope of doughty characters putting on a show in a barn.
Using guerrilla production techniques, the movie took an astonishing six months to make starting July 1967. Bronx-born George A. Romero specialised in advertisements and industrial shorts through his Latent Image company before branching out in Pittsburgh with some work colleagues from Hardman Associates to form a movie production company Image Ten, the name indicative of the initial ten investors.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking Romero and his gang were movie neophytes out of their depth. Technically, they were pretty accomplished, churning out adverts and shorts at a steady pace, the kind of education the likes of Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne enjoyed on the London advertising scene. According to Variety, Hardman was “the largest producer of record and radio shows in Pittsburgh…(running) the most completely equipped sound and film studio in the area” while Latent Image was the city’s “biggest producer of video and industrial shorts.”
The principals of both companies proved instrumental to the movie. While Romero took on directing, cinematography and editing duties, the screenplay was down to business partner John A. Russo while another partner Russell Streiner took on the role of producer. Hardman provided actors Karl Hardman, a former RKO contract player, and Marilyn Eastman, who also supervised make-up, costumes and special effects, while Kyra Schon, the dying daughter in the film, was Hardman’s real-life daughter. The rest of the cast were unknowns, Duane Jones in the lead had at least some stage experience, female lead Judith O’Dea had worked with the producers before, while Judith Ridley was a receptionist for the production company. Romance blossomed between O’Dea and Streiner.
Romero’s debut was heavily influenced by Powell and Pressburger’s British bizarre fantasy The Tales of Hoffman (1951) but the final film clearly draws on Richard Matheson’s celebrated 1964 sci-fi novel The Last Man on Earth – filmed in 1971 as The Omega Man and in 2007 as I Am Legend. Where Matheson’s book begins at the end, Romero wanted to show the beginning of how the undead came to rule the world. Since Matheson had used vampires, Romero needed an alternative.
Explained Romero: “I couldn’t use vampires because he did, so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. So I said, what if the dead stop staying dead?” That tapped into the attractive notion of living forever – until you realized what that entailed.
Shockerama pictures would be the easiest way to find a foothold on the distribution ladder. Initially devised as a horror comedy it took several drafts, the first couple involving aliens, before arriving at the concept of flesh-eating re-animated corpses.
Ben was originally envisaged as a blue collar truck driver and evolved into the more educated character as a result of rewriting by Duane Jones who objected to playing such a cliché. But improvisation was very much the order of the day. Recalled O’Dea: “I don’t know if there was an actual working script. We would go over what basically had to be done and then just did it the way we each felt it should be done.”
The initial investors ponied up $600 each but that proved insufficient as production developed, the company eventually raising $114,000. (The average cost of making a movie at that time was $1.6 million.) Budget dictated location be as remote as possible, the main locale a house scheduled for demolition. Chocolate syrup doubled as blood, human flesh was roasted ham and entrails supplied by one of the actors who was also a butcher. Clothing was anything the cast possessed that they didn’t mind being ripped. Color film was too expensive, and the resulting black-and-white footage has the effect of newsreel, almost a documentary rather than a work of fiction.
Although a myth has arisen that the movie struggled to find its way into the distribution food chain, that was not the case. Studios were desperate to find product and happy to hang their shingle on anything that could keep their clients, cinemas starved of movies, happy. Columbia and American International were both interested, but demanded a happy ending. When Romero stuck to his guns, the movie ended up with the Walter Reade organisation, a noted distributor of foreign and cult pictures, better suited to this kind of fare.
Nor was it sneaked out into cinemas as has been usually assumed. Given that by 1968 cinema managers owners were in part reliant on low-budget shockers, the National Association of Theater Owners instigated a nationwide “Exploitation Picture of the Month” campaign of which Night of the Living Dead was one of the early beneficiaries, as a result of its involvement scooping, for example, $117,000 from 26 houses in Philadelphia. and other pretty decent figures shown in the advertisement above.
Nor did it go out below-the-wire in Pittsburgh. A full-scale black-tie premiere was held on October 1, 1968, at the Reade-owned Fulton attended by Mayor Barr and the city’s safety director Norman Craig and various councillors. It rang a heavy box office bell, knocking up $62,000 – over $500,000 at today’s prices – for 11 theaters, outpointing Rosemary’s Baby (1968) which had played the same houses the week before. The distributor came up with a clever marketing ploy of taking out a $50,000 insurance policy with Lloyds of London against adverse audience reaction.
The film attracted controversy for going out un-rated. There was nothing unusual about that either. Only studios aligned with the MPAA Production Code had to submit their movies for the censor’s rating. Reade, which wasn’t involved in the Code, often imported movies from Europe and part of their attraction was that they were unrated, containing levels of nudity or violence that the official censor at the time would find impossible to pass. Lack of the vaunted Production Code Seal of Approval did not prevent a movie being shown, it just meant certain cinemas would not book it.
Chicago critic Roger Ebert made journalistic hay by complaining that kids were being allowed in to watch the movie. That he might be on hand to witness their shock at the images they saw seems hard to believe since critics usually viewed pictures in advance of opening at special screenings. In any case, in Chicago, Night of the Living Dead didn’t slip through the censorship net, but was passed by the local censorship board. His beef was with them, complaining that while the censors drew the line at nudity they had nothing against cannibalism. And it seems pretty odd that the management wasn’t aware of the film’s shocking content – presumably that being the reason it was booked in the first place – and permitted youngsters to troop in.
Although New York critics gave it the thumbs-down at least the New York Times (Vincent Canby no less), Post and Daily News took the trouble to see it, so it would at least benefit from editorial exposure. The trade press were mixed. While Variety railed that it “set a new low in box office opportunism,” its trade press competitor Box Office reckoned there was “an audience for this particular brand of sadism especially in drive-ins.”
Perhaps surprisingly given critical disapproval Night of the Living Dead enjoyed first-run outings in a variety of cities, though its main target was showcase (wide local release) and drive-ins. In Los Angeles it picked up a “hip” $10,500 at the 1,757-seat first-run Warren. (Multiply by ten to get an idea of how inflation would treat the gross and bear in mind this is pre-multiplex when cinema capacity could reach 5,000 and most city center emporiums seated 500-plus). In Boston it registered a “cool” $8,000 at the 1,250-seat Center. New York’s Broadway had to wait a year when the prestigious roadshow house the DeMille, in the week before it hosted 70mm extravaganza The Battle of Britain (1969), booked Slaves (1969)/Night of the Living Dead, grossing $21,000 in an eight-day fill-in run.
In its first New York showcase, when Night of the Living Dead was the main attraction with Dr Who and the Daleks in support, it scorched through $286,000 from 39 cinemas, the joint top result for the week. Returning a year later, as the support to Slaves put another $125,000 in the kitty from 26 plantations, again the top showcase performer for the week. Among notable wider releases were $14,300 from three in Dayton where it was “weekends at capacity in ozoners” (industry jargon for drive-ins). There was $10,000 from three houses in Minnesota.
Not being a contender for sale to television extended its screen life at a time when even big hits landed on small screens within a few years. As well as Slaves it was revived as the supporting feature to newer items Brotherhood of Satan (1971), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and The Nightcomers (1971). The teaming with Slaves racked up a “rousing” $82,000 in Detroit at the 5,000-seat Fox, and $55,000 the following week. The double bill with Brotherhood of Satan beat the previous week’s pairing of the reissued Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid/Mash. It formed part of an interesting triple bill at the 500-seat Plaza arthouse in Boston where it was teamed with Dutchman (1966) and Ulysses (1967).
But it was also building up a head of steam on the midnight screening circuit and began a record year’s run in that slot at the Plaza in Boston. Gradually, as it acquired more artistic credibility it turned up at prestigious New York 538-seat arthouse the Beekman with Invasion of the Body Snatchers in support (gross $5,000), ironically acting as trailer for a six-week programme of revivals based on “Ten Best” selections from critics which had avowedly spurned the movie. And it was chosen as the ideal companion for the once-banned Freaks (1932). Perhaps proof of the breakthrough into respectable cult territory, six years after initial release, was a New York showcase pairing with Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972), drumming up $63,500 from 29 bandstands.
By the end of December 1970, rentals (the amount the studio collects from cinemas as opposed to overall gross) stood at $1 million – which probably indicated a gross of around $3 million. It found a British distributor in Crispin and eventually rolled out successfully around the world with an estimated $18 million in global gross.
SOURCES: John Russo, The Complete Night of the Living Dead Filmbook (Imagine, 1985), p6,7, 31, 61, 70; Joe Kane, Night of the Living Dead (Citadel Press, 2010) p23; Jason Paul Collum, Attack of the Killer B’s (McFarland, 2004) p3; Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, January 5, 1969; Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere, A History of the Hollywood Wide Release, 1913-2017 (McFarland 2019), p161; “Pittsburgh Premiere Held for Walter Reade Thriller,” Box Office, October 8,1968, p8; “Pittsburgh’s Hometown Horror to Reade: Surprise Boff BO,” Variety, October 9, 1968, p17; “Review,” Variety, October 16, 1968, p6; “Big Success Claimed for Image Ten Film,” Box Office, October 21, 1968, pE1; Advert, Box Office, November 25, 1968, p7; “N.Y. Critics: A Shooting Gallery,” Variety, December 11, 1968, p19; “Sun-Times Wants Chicago ‘Absurd’ Censorship Brought to Halt,” Box Office, March 14, 1969, p10; “Pittsburgh’s Latent Image Make 2nd Film,” Variety, December 3, 1969, p4; “Pittsburgh’s Cannibal Film Big Box Office,” Variety, April 8, 1970, p13; Advertisement, Kine Weekly, June 16, 1970, p61; “Big Rental Films of 1970,” Variety, January 6, 1971, p11; “Year of Friday Midnight Showings,” Variety, August 16, 1972, p6.
Box Office Figures from Variety: December 4, 1968, p13; December 11, 1968, p10-p11; December 18, 1968, p8-p13; July 9, 1969, p8; March 4, 1970, p12; October 13, 1971, p8-p12; October 20, 1969, p9; October 27, 1971, p16; Mar 17, 1972, p10; April 12, 1972, p10; May 12, 1971, p8; July 19, 1972, p12; August 9, 1972, p8; September 25, 1974, p8.
By the start of the 1960s the classic retrospective was nothing new – a dozen Greta Garbo pictures split into double-bills each playing for a couple of days could fill an arthouse for a fortnight. Charlie Chaplin was in a class of his own, single bills of his own movies running for weeks in arthouses.
But these revivals of older movies had a noted common denominator. They were arthouse fodder. The ordinary picture house owners, bereft of a steady stream of movies when the industry hit the buffers at the start of the decade and when roadshows started to clog the food chain, would not find many takers among their ordinary clientele for such pictures.
Fred Schwartz of MGM came up with the solution. He was in the unusual position of knowing exactly how difficult life was for the exhibitor. He had been one in Long Island. There was nothing particularly new about his plan to launch a more popular version of the old movie revival. What was revolutionary was how he planned to do it, an idea that only an exhibitor could dream up.
Because what every ordinary exhibitor, running a small operation far away from the august city center outfits that could hold on to new pictures for weeks, sometimes months, on end, dreaded was the midweek lull. Most small theaters ran on split-week programs. A new double bill at the start of the week, another one at the end. The very fact that the first one was running when demand was at its lowest invariably meant that by the Wednesday the movies were showing to virtually empty houses.
So in 1962 Schwartz decided to revive the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy series of operettas and play them only on a Wednesday. And they would be rationed. Exhibitors could not just arrange their own program, decide which of the six on offer to show on which date, or only take some and not others. Schwartz decided on the running order. And you had to take them all or none at all. And they were playing on percentages rather than the normal flat rate for an oldie. And these were all films that had already been shown on television.
Which was a stiff call for an exhibitor. But the innovative Schwartz promised new prints and new artwork promoting all six pictures all at once. Not just that, he had a dream of a wheeze. Audiences would pay in advance. Just as with roadshows. They would buy a season ticket to see all six movies. Since the movies would only be screened once with no guarantee they would ever return, that did not seem too onerous a commitment. And who was so busy on a Wednesday night that they couldn’t spare the time to relive the Hollywood Golden Age?
The linked series of films with new advertising campaigns and prints was promoted as “a smart playoff pattern fashioned to reintroduce older fans to best-remembered hits and attract new audiences that never saw them.” And also, unstated, was the notion it would bring back to the cinema those fans who had long given up going due to the excess of sex and violence.
Equally, unstated, the program’s overall title “The MGM Perpetual Product Plan” pandered to exhibitor fear of there being no guarantees – of when a new movie would arrive, if it would come at all, and if in the next few months the entire distribution set-up would grind to a halt. Studios were so busy taking care of the palaces in the big cinema centers that they had plain forgot about the role played by the small cinemas.
The introductory half-dozen tabbed “The Golden Operettas” were: Rose Marie (1936), The Merry Widow (1934), The Great Waltz (1938), The Student Prince (1954), Girl of the Golden West (1938) and The Chocolate Solder (1941). The program poster was issued well in advance allowing customers to mark the dates off in their diaries.
Schwartz hit the bulls-eye. Cinemas whose normal takings amounted to little more than $60 found themselves sitting on five times as much, often much more, receipts running in the region of $300-$500 a night. The Chocolate Soldier was the top earner, hitting highs of $2,200 a night, followed by The Student Prince on $1,900 a night. Schwartz expected 2,500 cinemas to sign up – he beat his target by over 1,000.
Schwarz followed up with an eight-week “World Heritage Film and Book Program” which included Little Women (1949) starring the now-huge-star Elizabeth Taylor, Captains Courageous (1937) with Hollywood perennial Spencer Tracy in Oscar-winning form, Errol Flynn in Kim (1950) and W,C. Fields in David Copperfield (1935). This particular mix, programmed during the school term, had the added advantage of being able to be sold to schools for matinees, winning the endorsement of national educators and helped on its marketing way by a tie-up with Scholastic publishers.
With a vast vault to be plundered, MGM created a third package entitled “World Famous Musical Hits.” This comprised Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Mario Lanza in Because You’re Mine (1952), Fred Astaire in The Bandwagon (1953) and Three Little Words (1948) plus Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) and Words and Music (1948). The latter three fell into what we would call today the “jukebox” category since they were biopics of the country’s greatest Broadway composers Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hart and Kalmar & Ruby.
MGM branched out into other mixed seasons that might bring together Garbo and the Marx Brothers and another including more modern operettas and musicals. Once the one-day-a-week concept had run its course, the movies were repackaged as double bills in split weeks. MGM also permitted local managers to experiment with their own programs, one such, the double bill of Ivanhoe (1952) and Knights of the Round Table (1953), proving so popular the studio spun it out on its own national reissue. Eventually, exhibitors were permitted the option of running the seasons on Mondays, thus getting the week off to a flying start, instead of Wednesdays and some cinemas began offering the season tickets as Xmas gifts.
Schwartz knew ordinary cinemas would lack the instinctive knowledge of how sell this unusual program so he spent a lot of money and expended a huge amount of effort showing exactly how it should be sold. Where other studios took cinema circuit owners and key exhibitors away to shindigs to introduce them to new movies, Schwartz did the same for his old pictures. He devised a lobby campaign that would not only include all the films being shown, but their specific dates, the advertisement itself designed to highlight that week’s film while also promoting the ones still to appear.
The fact that operators could actually market a movie scheduled to be shown in four or six weeks time was in itself revolutionary because the distribution rules of the time forbade theaters from advertising movies beyond the one being shown the next week. That was to get round the possibility that a moviegoer would put off trekking into the city center to see a new big picture if he knew it would turn up in his neighborhood house a couple of months later.
The strategy of appealing to a core of older movie fans who would then bring in through word-of-mouth the younger generation was behind the marketing of later reissues featuring such iconic stars as Humphrey Bogart. And it’s also interesting to note that these days most revivals of older pictures are restricted to a one-day showing. In almost a homage to the Fred Schwartz plan, the James Bond 60th Anniversary revival, for example, is currently showing in Cineworld houses in the U.K. on a Monday for 25 consecutive weeks, beginning mid-April and due to end in October.
If you’re interested in the whole subject of why old movies keep on popping up – Jaws 3D the latest example – you could do worse than take a look at the book I’ve written on the subject, which turned out to be the gold standard on reissues/revivals. It took me forever to write and no wonder as it clocks in at a mammoth 250,000 words (including notes which contain a mine of extra information). I’m not an academic, as you might have gathered, so had no way of plugging the book into the academic pipeline when it first appeared several years back. But now I’m pleased to say it has found its niche.
SOURCES: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You, A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016), p127-131; “MGM’s Perpetual Product Plan,” Independent Exhibitor Bulletin, October 1, 1962, p11; “MGM Older Product to Regional Outlets,” Box Office, November 20, 1961, p7; “2,500 Bookings for MGM’s Operetta Predicted by Fred Schwartz,” Box Office, September 17, 1962, 5; “Operetta Series Ducats Sold as Xmas Gifts,” Box Office, January 14, 1963, 69; “MGM Offering $100 Prize for Perpetual Product,” Box Office, January 21, 1963, 5.“Heritage and Operetta Films Yield Well When Promotion Centered on School,” Box Office, February 11, 1963, 66; “MGM Reissues in Black,” Variety, February 27, 1963, 13; “MGM Policy on Reissues Is Open Ended,” Independent Film Bulletin, April 3, 1963, 10; “If Handpicked, Reissues Can Tint Mondays Golden,” Variety, September 18, 1963, 13; “Metro Rally for Reissues,” Variety, October 9, 1963, 15.
A million-and-a-half dollars potentially went down the drain when, thanks to the Russian invasion two months into production, producer David L. Wolper had to shift location shooting of World War Two picture The Bridge at Remagen from Czechoslovakia to Italy and Germany. Actors and crew woke up on August 21, 1968, to find their hotel surrounded by Russian tanks. Only quick action saw 80 personnel ferried in a taxi convoy through the only remaining open checkpoint to the airport, their departure coinciding with the arrival of the Russian paratroopers.
This had not been the first international incident for the movie, based on the destruction of the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine at Remagen in Germany. Previously, Wolper had been accused of being a C.I.A. spy and reports were circulating that armaments were being brought in to support Czech leader Dubcek while rumours flew of “busloads of American troops…arriving in Prague disguised as tourists and film technicians.” Matters were so bad that the Czech army placed under lock and key the film’s entire TNT and dynamite inventory amounting to over 6,000 sticks of the former and 800lb of the latter.
Small wonder the Russians were alarmed because the production had arrived with a massive cache of weaponry – an inventory over 1,000 pieces strong – including eight Sherman tanks and over 130 Browning and Thompson machine guns, MI rifles and carbines and Colt pistols as well as 300 dummy rifles. Luckily, most of the film’s battle scenes action had been completed when production was interrupted but that still meant a month of interiors and exteriors.
Wolper was something of a Johnny-come-lately to the Remagen scene. Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront, 1954), who had fought at Remagen, and his brother Stuart were first into the frame, planning in 1958 to film for Warner Brothers Ken Hechler’s 1957 bestseller on the battle, as a follow-up to their first production, Wind Across the Everglades (1958). Stanley Kubrick was being lined up to direct. When WB bowed out the Schulberg Brothers moved it first to Columbia and then United Artists. When that gamble failed to come off, United Artists assigned Phil Karlson (The Secret Ways, 1961) as director but that also hit the buffers. Although Wolper started work developing a treatment in 1965 – Irvin Kershner in his mind as director – he had Ihe had to deal with another contender in Flaum and Grinberg Productions which in 1966 announced this as their debut production.
Wolper had come to movies on the back of documentaries. Using his Metromedia outfit as an umbrella, he had struck a six-picture deal with United Artists. The first movie had been the documentary Four Days in November (1964). But the next was intended to be a “plotted dramatic film based on fact with a big star cast” known at the time as The Remagen Bridge. From the outset this was seen as a “harsh recreation of actual slogging combat with some four letter words and not a glorification of war but underlining its hellishness.”
In the event, this was overtaken on the Wolper schedule by another war movie The Devil’s Brigade (1968). Further pictures planned were Europe U.S.A. (a.k.a. If It’s Tuesday It Must Be Belgium, 1968) and All the Conquerors (never made). Wolper had also in 1965 purchased the source material for The Green Beret, that proved to be a war movie too far and the project ended up with Warner Brothers and John Wayne.
After Roger Hirson delivered a story treatment for Wolper in 1965, the screenplay of The Bridge at Remagen went through the hands of Richard Yates, paid $25,000, the uncredited Ted Strauss (a Wolper executive with writing credits on documentaries) and Sam Watson who stiffened the treatment, with input from Wolper determined to “reinforce the image of Michaels (Segal) as one of the walking dead.”
While veteran William Roberts (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) finalized many of the film’s elements, Wolper also turned to Ray Rigby (Operation Crossbow, 1965) to “deepen the characters and create scenes with more punch” and Rod Serling (another $25,000). But Hirson could lay claim to setting up the movie’s dynamic. “This is the story of two men and a bridge,” he wrote. Initially, the American was called Earl Ammerman then Floyd Love before hitting on Michaels and finally Hartman, although that first name went from Curt to Vic to Phil. The German originally Hans Heller transitioned to Major Krueger, based on the real-life Hans Scheller.
Early drafts contained references to German secret weapons, a chaplain, a group of Polish sex workers and a brief glimpse of the woman (Anna Gael) at the end. Anthony Hopkins, then unknown, and Robert Vaughn were considered for the role of Major Krueger. Vaughn could read German and had an Oscar nomination and was a leading television star. George Segal faced no competition for his starring role, having already been in uniform for King Rat (1965). But Alex Cord (Stagecoach, 1966) declined a supporting role and Robert Blake (Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here, 1969) was considered
Filming on the original Rhine bridge was no longer possible given it had fallen ten days after the battle. Depending on which report you read, finding a replacement took around three years or 18 months or maybe just six months and involved a global search. One usable bridge was found in Washington State but with bare hillsides rather than town and mountain. John Frankenheimer on The Fixer (1968) had set a precedent for filming behind the Iron Curtain by using Budapest in Hungary to represent Russia.
Not far from Prague in what was then known as Czechoslovakia the production unit alighted on the Davle road bridge, and struck a deal in October 1967. It was almost a perfect match for Ludendorff once towers had been added at either end, the bridge itself raised by 14ft and been augmented for authenticity by wooden and steel girders. To complete the transformation an 80ft tunnel was blasted out of the surrounding mountains. And a false church, another key scene, was built on a hill.
For $20,000 Wolper also bought a village called Most which the government had marked for demolition, allowing him to blow up designated buildings in a three-square block, providing the location for a key sequence in which the town was devastated by tank bombardment. (As I mentioned in my review, the collapse of these buildings looked incredibly real, and no wonder given they were not plaster-and-lathe imitations but genuine stone.)
Prague’s Barrandov Studios supplied 188 crew, up to 5,000 extras, interiors and transport. As part of the deal Czech labs would carry out the processing but not the synching or mixing. The decision to shoot in Czechoslovakia was primarily financial. Wolper reckoning shooting there could be done for $3.5 million, saving the production an estimated $2 million-$2.5 million if filmed in Hollywood. For the Czechs The Bridge at Remagen was a “test situation.” Should the country’s movie industry prove amenable to Hollywood it could result in an influx of hard currency and a stampede of U.S. productions. Already The Reckoning was heading for Bratislava.
Ironically, the success of a Communist-ruled country like Czechoslavakia in embracing Hollywood business lay in its acceptance of capitalism. It was ironic that what Wolper demanded of his Czech counterparts would have been impossible to achieve in a democratic country. “No western society could suspect traffic from a public thorough fare for three months to benefit a private enterprise.” Motorists were forced to use a temporary ferry and river traffic was held whenever required.
Englishman John Guillermin, a World War Two veteran, was hired on the basis of World War One picture The Blue Max (1966). That he had completed A New Face in Hell (1968) by the time shooting began was a bonus. Vaughn credited Guillemin with the film’s success. “I think he did a lot of research to make it more than just another war movie.”
George Segal concurred, “That was a movie constructed by John Guillermin and cinematographer Stanley Cortez. They shot a war and Guillermin made sense out of it – the angles were so dramatic….It was an epic… (P.J./A New Face in Hell) was a tough-as-nails movie at that time and I knew that’s what Remagen needed…Developing the war-weary character of Hartman was a little bit of me and a little bit of working it out with Guillermin…He brought so much texture to it that you fed off him and his attitudes and the way he conducted himself… Very focused, very concentrated, Guillermin was very economical in his shooting…He was a great influence on me in that film because I was the one who had to take charge and he demonstrated to me how to take charge.”
There was another side to Guillermin that almost caused him to be fired. “He was kind of a martinet,” explained Vaughn, “but I got along very well with him.” Added Segal, “I know sometimes he was implacable and I know that Wolper had problems with him.” That was putting it mildly. “The first day of shooting,” recalled Bo Hopkins, “John Guillermin hollered so loud his veins stuck out.” But when Guillermin attempted to bar Wolper from the set for a complicated battle scene, the producer promptly fired him. “When he realized I was serious,” Wolper recollected, “he apologized so I rescinded his firing. But I wasn’t kidding. Without that apology, he would have been gone. I had learned early that, as a producer, you have to be tough and you have to be tough right away.”
That it was truly a war out there can be judged from the armoury. The rolling stock came courtesy of the Austrian army by way of a sale from the U.S. in 1947. These included eight M-24 Chaffee tanks, three M-3 half-tracks, three M-8 armoured cars, eight 2½ ton trucks and six jeeps. The German actors and extras were armed with 250 Mauser rifles, 28 M-P machine guns, 14 P-38 pistols, 14 Lugers and eight Bren machine guns on top of four 88mm anti-aircraft guns, eight troop carriers and a dozen assorted armoured vehicles. In total the picture drummed up 150,000 rounds of ammunition, and in addition to the TNT and dynamite consignment mentioned above over three tons of smoke-producing powder.
The German and American stories were filmed separately, with little crossover between the two units. Remagen battle tank veteran Col Cecil E. Roberts, retired, oversaw the training of extras as U.S. and German soldiers. Hal Needham took charge of the stunts.
Part of the Czech Hollywood education was understanding the hospitality needs of the stars. Usually for a long shoot abroad, principals would be lodged in private houses, but here the 35 most important personnel were pup up in hotels. To the Czech way of thinking “deluxe hostelry was inappropriate” was actors who would be playing tough soldiers so the worst of the modern hotels, The International, was where many ended up.
The mollycoddled Hollywood contingent, wherever accommodated, found service uniformly slow, water supplies liable to vanish at short notice, no water at all one day, and drycleaning facilities that took two days. The normal contingent of wives had little confidence in the Czechs reaching the necessary standards. Janice Rule (Mrs Ben Gazzara) lasted three weeks before skipping off to Paris. Mrs Segal and her child remained in Switzerland for the duration. Although the three top stars dined each night Segal drank little on the grounds that “it interferes with my suffering.”
The stars were suddenly newsworthy when they became the first refugees from Czechoslovakia. Robert Vaughn and most of the world had expected a different outcome when Alexander Dubcek took over, a basic form of democracy heralded as the “Czech Spring.” Recalled the actor, “By the time we started filming (on June 6, 1968) it was a joyous time to be in Prague…the smiles (the public) wore and their exuberant anything-is-now-possible mood exemplified the socialism with a human face then making headlines the world over.” Ben Gazzara commented: “They were closing down the borders. If one of our people hadn’t called the U.S. Embassy we would have gone to the wrong border checkpoint, one already closed by the Russians.” Gazzara smuggled out a local waitress. The taxi convoy was met at the border by a fleet of buses organized by Wolper.
Stuck with an incomplete movie, and having to come to terms with the volume of equipment equipment left behind, Wolper took three weeks to reorganize. Most of the action sequences had been completed, but the vast arsenal borrowed from Austria would require substantial compensation if not returned. In addition, also lost were 40 reels of unprocessed colour negative worth $250,000 and crucial plates for rear projection work. In the end, the Russians were not willing to go to war with a Hollywood studio and returned 5,200 items of materiel, arms, costumes and film as well as 47 heavy-duty military vehicles straight to Vienna. .
Wolper found two locations to replicate the lost Dalve bridge – a crossing near Hamburg employed to represent the underside of the historic bridge for a key scene and at Castel Gandolfo close to Rome in Italy he built a half-scale replica. The addition of a small part of the bridge and a tunnel allowed the director to complete a number of vital sequences including when Hartman runs under enemy fire.
A second unit under the direction of William Kronick was permitted to return to Czechoslovakia to film 12,000 feet of “critical shots that couldn’t be duplicated.” These comprised long shots of the Germans trying to blow up the bridge and the eventual crossing of the bridge by 600 American soldiers – played by Czech Army personnel in the relevant uniform – and tanks and half-tracks. This was done, however, under the watchful eye of 500 armed Russian troops. Wolper had to pony up an extra $1 million for reconstructing sets originally used in Prague, for building the new bridge in Italy, for transport and for an extraq five weeks in salary.
“We defy anyone to identify what was shot near Prague and what was shot near Hamburg or outside Rome,” boasted Wolper (although in fact such mismatches provoked negative comment). He was especially proud of the scene of George Segal running across the bridge which was begun in Czechoslovakia nine weeks before it was completed at Castel Gandolfo on the reconstructed bridge. “You cannot tell the difference,” he said. Considering the unexpected interruption, he could be justifiably smug that the movie completed shooting in just 93 days.
Wolper had no illusions about the movie business and did not believe in the notion that any studio or producer possessed a magic touch, much though that was a line given out by any filmmaker enjoying a bout of success. “Audiences are very selective nowadays,” he said. “The moviegoer has an antenna that goes up if they like a film. If the antenna doesn’t go up nothing will drag him in.”
Wolper decide to launch the picture with an old-fashioned “local” world premiere. Ever since Cecil B. DeMille premiered The Buccaneer (1938) in New Orleans, this had turned into a major marketing device, with movies having first showings in a variety of small towns and cities all over America linked to a location shoot or birthplace of a star. The idea had long been out of fashion but since the original author was now a respected West Virginia Congressman, the movie premiered at the Keith-Albee cinema in Huntingdon, the mayor declaring a “Remagen Week” and tanks rolling through the streets as part of a publicity blitz.
By the time The Bridge at Remagen appeared, Wolper was a big-time indie producer, having splashed out $500,000 pre-publication on John Updike’s Couples to be directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (never made). Also on his agenda were: The Confessions of Nat Turner to star James Earl Jones with first Norman Jewison at the helm then Sidney Lumet, an original screenplay by Mort Fine (The Pawnbroker, 1964) called The Blessed McGill, The Great Cowboy Race from a screenplay by Abe Ginnes, Three Women (renamed I Love My Wife, 1970) and King, Queen Knave (1972) based on the Nabokov novel.
It’s axiomatic of the vagaries of Hollywood for even the most successful producers that two of these films never saw the light of day. Wolper stopped making movies after 1972, concentrating on television mini-series and documentaries for over two decades before returning to Hollywood in triumph with L.A. Confidential (1997).
SOURCES: Steven Jay Rubin, The Making of The Bridge at Remagen, Cinema Retro, Vol 12, Issue 33, pages 26-37 and Vol 12, Issue 34, pages 18-25; “Schulberg Next for WB Rhine Crossing Saga,” Variety, August 13, 1958, p7; “Schulberg Freres Will Roll Book by Congressman,” Variety, June 3, 1959, p7; “Rolling in Germany,” Variety, November 16, 1960, p5; “Phil Karlson Will Direct Mirisch Film in Europe,” Box Office, Jul 26, 1961, pW4; “Remagen Bridge As Plotted Film for UA,” Variety, March 3, 1965, p17; “Wolper Purchases Rights to GreenBeret,” Box Office, July 5, 1965, pW2”; “Flaum and Grinberg Form Production Firm,” Box Office, May 30, 1966, pW1; “Wolper Forms New Company To Produce Features, “ Box Office, February 27, 1967, p5; “Borrow Span, Blow Up Town,” Variety, November 8, 1967, p7; “UA Signs Wolper for Couples Release,” Box Office, February 26, 1968, p5; “Representative Hechler Is Adviser on Bridge at Remagen,” Box Office, April 22, 1968, p8; “Czechs Learn Fast What Yanks location Wants,” Variety, July 3, 1968, p31; “E Germans: Remagen a C.I.A. Front,” Variety, August 14, 1968, p14; “Czechs Want Western Production,” Variety, August 21, 1968, p16 – astonishingly this story ran on the day the Czechs ended any chance of Western movie investment when the Russians invaded the country; “Remagen Crew Safe, Will Finish at Hamburg Studio Site,” Variety, August 28, 1968, p3; “Remagen Weapons List,” Variety, August 14, 1968, p14; “Actors Cross Borders in Nick of Time,” Box Office, September 2, 1968, p12, “Wolper Retreat From Prague Costs Him Vast Arsenal for Remagen,” Variety, September 25, 1968, p32; “Remagen, 2nd Unit Shoots with USSR Troops Watching,” Variety, November 6, 1968, p2; “Despite Reds Czech Invasion, Wolper Winds His Remagen,” Variety, November 27, 1968, p28; Advertisement, Variety, January 15, 1969, p33; Advertisement. “Bridge at Remagen, The Incredible Log of the Motion Picture that Became An International Incident,” Variety, May 7, 1969, p132-133. “Audiences Still Puzzle for Producer David Wolper,” Box Office, July 14, 1969, pWC2; “Photograph,” Box Office, August 18, 1968, pB2.
The prospective casting was tantalizing. How about Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, a pairing for the ages, two of the toughest guys in screen history? Failing that, Eastwood and Charles Bronson, The Man With No Name vs The Monosyllabic Man? The role of Colonel Mortimer could also have gone to Henry Fonda or Robert Ryan before in one of the movie business’s oddest tales it ended up with Lee Van Cleef.
In due course Bronson and Fonda would work with Sergio Leone in the director’s best film, Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Fonda’s agent had already dodged Leone’s entreaties once, having rejected A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Marvin was, in fact, all set, an oral agreement in place until a few days before shooting began on For a Few Dollars More he suddenly opted instead for Cat Ballou (1965), a decision that won him an Oscar and turned him into an unlikely star.
When none of his first choices proved available or interested, Leone turned to Van Cleef. Or, more correctly, a photo of the actor pulled from an old casting catalog. Although a western buff like Leone remembered Van Cleef from his debut in High Noon (1952) plus Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Tin Star (1957) and a dozen other bit parts and supporting roles in westerns, Van Cleef had not been credited in a movie since The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
He proved virtually impossible to track down. No small surprise there because he earned a living mostly as a painter now, a car accident having left him with a limp. He couldn’t run, much less ride anything but a docile horse. He required a stepladder to get mounted. Leone flew to Los Angeles and his first sight of Van Cleef, older than his photograph, proved his instincts correct, Van Cleef’s face “so strong, so powerful.” The salary on offer, for a down-on-his-luck actor scarcely able to pay a phone bill, was a fat purse of $10,000. (Eastwood’s salary was $50,000 plus a profit share compared to just $15,000 for the first film).
Leone put him to work right away, the day he arrived in Italy filming reaction shots. It was just as well his input that day was so simple because, as Clint Eastwood had discovered, the language barrier was a problem. Equally disconcerting was that Van Cleef had no idea why he had been chosen, and since A Fistful of Dollars had not been released in the U.S., no inkling of the kind of western the director had in mind. At Eastwood’s urging, he nipped out to a local cinema and returned with the understanding that the script was “definitely second to style.” Van Cleef was easy to work with, and although he could put away a fair amount of liquid refreshment it never interfered with his work. He came ready for direction.
Leone had not wanted to make a sequel. His original plan was a caper picture called Grand Slam or a remake of Fritz Lang’s classic M to star Klaus Kinski or an autobiographical drama – Viale Glorioso – set in the 1930s. Jolly, the producers of A Fistful of Dollars, offered him a 30 per cent profit share on that film if he made a sequel, as they felt he was legally obliged to do. Instead, furious with his treatment at their hands, the director hit upon the title of a sequel For a Few Dollars More, the actual storyline only coming to fruition when he came across a treatment called The Bounty Killer by Enzo dell’Aquilla and Fernando Di Leo, who in exchange for a large sum, surrendered their screen credits. Luciano Vincenzoni completed the screenplay in nine days, leavening it with humor, after the director and his brother-in-law Fulvio Morsella had produced a revised treatment, Leone also involved in the final screenplay.
Leone found a new backer in Alberto Grimaldi, an Italian entertainment lawyer who worked for Columbia and Twentieth Century Fox and had produced seven Spanish westerns. He promised to triple the first film’s budget to $600,000, with the director on a salary and 50 per cent profit share.
Success bred artistic confidence. A Fistful of Dollars had broken all box office records in Italy, grossing $4.6 million, and so Leone sought to improve on his initial offering and develop an “authorial voice.”
Thematically, with two principals, initially rivals who end up as “argumentative children,” it took inspiration from westerns like The Bravados (1958) – the photo and the chiming watch – and Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz which pitched Burt Lancaster against Gary Cooper. While bounty hunters had cropped up in Hollywood, they were not ruthless killers, actions always justified, rather than merely professionals doing their job. So in some sense Leone was drawing upon, and upending, films like Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur (1953) and The Tin Star, Andre De Toth’s The Bounty Hunter (1954) and Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome (1959). Just as Clint Eastwood’s bounty hunter underwent change, gradually the character played by Gian Maria Volonte evolved from a straightforward outlaw called Tombstone to a stoned, sadistic bandit named El Indio.
With artistic pretension came attention to detail. Leone required historical exactitude not just relating to weapons used, but their ballistics and range. Lee Van Cleef’s arsenal included a Buntline Special with removable shoulder stock, Colt Lightning pump action shotgun, Winchester ’94 rifle, and a double-barreled Lefaucheux. Carlo Simi’s town, constructed near Almeria, contained a two-storey saloon, undertaker’s parlor, barbershop, telegraph office, jail, hotel and an adobe First City Bank. And there was nothing pretty about it. The saloon was dirty and overcrowded, machines belching so much smoke it “looked as if a man could choke in there.” Filming took place between mid-April and the end of June 1965.
Perhaps the biggest area for improvement was the music. Ennio Morricone had scored another nine films since A Fistful of Dollars. Both director and composer had ambitious ideas about how to use the music. The score was not recorded in advance, nor was Morricone given a screenplay, instead listening while Leone told him the story and asked for individual themes for characters. Morricone would play short pieces for Leone and if met with his approval compose longer themes. Each character had their own leitmotif, sometimes the same instrument at different registers, the flute brief and high-pitched for Monco (Eastwood) but in a low register for Mortimer, church bells and a guitar representing El Indio. In a very real sense, they were experimenting with form. Bernardo Bertolucci regarded Morricone’s music as “almost a visible element in the film.” Musical ideas regarding El Indio’s watch, however, were developed at the rough cut stage, its repetitive melody becoming “sound effect, musical introduction and concrete element in the story.”
As well as creating music for audiences, Leone’s films are punctured with music that holds particular meaning for characters, here the watch and in Once Upon a Time in the West the harmonica, in both films flashback used to assist understanding.
The myth of why it took so long for either film to reach the United States was based on two misconceptions, firstly that Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, whose Yojimbo (1961) A Fistful of Dollars closely resembled, had blocked its progress, secondly that it relied on screenwriter Vincenzoni to make the breakthrough via a contact working for United Artists.
In fact, there were more obvious reasons for resistance from American distributors. In the first place, you could not discount snobbery. The notion that the country that had invented the western should now be reliant on importing them from Italy seemed a shade abhorrent. Although For a Few Dollars More was sold to 26 countries in a day at the annual Sorrento trade fair in 1965 – at the same fair a year earlier there had not been a single taker for A Fistful of Dollars – the United States was not among the buyers, distributors perhaps even more daunted by the prospect of introducing so much violence to American audiences reared on the traditional western.
Foreign movies that made the successful transition to the United States arrived weighted down with critical approval and/or awards or garlanded with a sexy actress – Brigitte Bardot, Anna Magnani, Sophia Loren among the favored – and risqué scenes that Hollywood dare not include for fear of offending the all-mighty Production Code.
But sex was a far easier sell in the U.S. than violence. And an actor with no movie marquee such as Clint Eastwood did not fill exhibitors with delight and even the notion that A Fistful of Dollars was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) failed to stir the critics (as with The Magnificent Seven being a remake of Seven Samurai, most viewing the notion as repellent). So both the first and second pictures in the “Dollars” trilogy were stuck in distribution limbo for three and two years, respectively, before being screened in America.
And, initially, it had appeared that Italian audiences shared the same distaste for a cultural intruder such as A Fistful of Dollars. One cinema chain owner refused to book the film on the grounds that there were not enough female characters. A Fistful of Dollars was released in Italy in August, a dead period, since the month is so hot and everyone has abandoned the city for the beach. It opened – only in Florence and with neither publicity nor advertising – on August 27th 1964, a Friday, and did poor business that day and the next. But by Monday, it was a different story, takings had doubled and over the following two days customers were being turned away. New films typically played first-run for 7-10 days in Florence, A Fistful of Dollars ran for three months, triggering a box office story of Cinderella proportions.
But my research indicated there had been ample opportunity for an American distributor to snap up the rights to A Fistful of Dollars in 1965, two years before it was finally released there. In the first place, the music rights had already been purchased by New York firm South Mountain Music in March 1965 in expectation the film would acquire release that year. In December 1965 Arrigo Colombo, partner in Jolly, flew to the United States for the specific purpose of lining up a major distributor for A Fistful of Dollars. The company had previously secured U.S. distribution for horror product like Castle of Blood (1964) and Blood and Black Lace (1964) but those were outright sales.
With the movie already sold to Spain, West Germany, France and Japan, Colombo aimed to conclude a deal for the English-speaking market, “purposely holding back” from releasing the picture in those countries as he sought an all-encompassing contract. At that point, Kurosawa no longer stood in the way, that issue “now cleared up” settled in the normal fashion by financial inducement, in an “amicable settlement” Toho snagging the Japanese and Korean rights, the deal sweetened with a minimum $100,000 against a share of global profits. But Colombo went home empty-handed, unable to secure any deal and his temerity ridiculed by trade magazine Variety
Although Sergio Leone had one other legal obstacle to surmount that would not have got in the way of a U.S. distribution deal, the worst that could happen being that a contract might be struck with a different company. Italian companies Jolly Films/Unidis, which had backed the original, took umbrage at Leone going ahead with the sequel without their financial involvement, cutting them off from the profit pipeline. So in April 1966 they took Leone to court in Rome arguing that For A Few Dollars More “represented a steal as well as unlawful competition for its own Fistful.” Four months later the judge denied the claim on the grounds that “the character played by Clint Eastwood in each film is not characterized to such a degree that a likeness exists” (even though to all intents and purposes it was the same character, cigar, poncho, gun, bounty hunting!). Ironically, Italian laxity in such matters counted against Eastwood when he failed to prevent the distribution of a film based on two segments of Rawhide stitched together.
It would also be highly unusual if United Artists was not aware of both A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few DollarsMore since, in keeping tabs on the foreign performance of both Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965) the studio could scarcely fail to notice the Italian westerns close on their box office tail, the second western outpointing Thunderball in daily averages in Rome.
But the story still, erroneously, goes that it was the intervention of writer Vincenzoni which proved decisive. He had contacts in U.S, namely Ilya Lopert of United Artists. Grimaldi was, meanwhile, trying to sell U.S. and Canada rights relating to the second picture. Vincenzoni arranged for UA’s representatives to view A Fistful of Dollars in Rome and cut himself in for a slice of the profits when the distributor surprisingly purchased the entire series.
Since A Fistful of Dollars had already been sold to most major territories, UA could only acquire the North American rights – for a reported $900,000 – but for the other two films gained a considerably larger share of global distribution
United Artists was an unusual company among the Hollywood hierarchy, and not primarily due to recurrent Oscar success, but because it had, completely unexpectedly, hit box office gold with James Bond. There was nothing particularly odd about a series, as Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes etc (still flourishing in the 1960s) testified. What was distinctive about the Bonds was that each picture – the four so far had earned close to $150 million worldwide, not counting merchandising – had done better than the last, which went against the standard rule of sequels of diminishing returns and higher costs. Given the opportunity to buy into a ready-made series (two films in the can, the third in production) UA made an “attempt to calculatedly duplicate the (Bond) phenomenon” and in so doing “create a trend.” Assuming the movies would follow the Bond formula of increased grosses with each successive picture, the studio was prepared to spend “many hundreds of thousands” of dollars to establish the first picture.
United Artists embarked on an unusual sales campaign to the trade. Instead of marketing the pictures one at a time, they started to promote the series with the tagline “A Fistful of Dollars is the first motion picture of its kind, it won’t be the last.” The advertising campaign was unusual in that it was based entirely around introducing the character rather than the story (much in the same way as James Bond had been), three separate slivers of the poster devoted to visual aspects, the cigar, gun and poncho, each carrying mention of “The Man With No Name,” such anonymity one of the talking points of the movies.
Cinema managers were briefed on release dates, A Fistful of Dollars in January 1967, the sequel for April and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for Xmas that year. Like the Bonds, it was expected that box office would progressively, if not explosively, increase. The studio unveiled a “hard-hitting campaign” designed to “intrigue the western or action fan.”
However, the North American premiere was held not in the United States but Canada, at the Odeon-Carlton in Toronto. Having committed to a four-week engagement, a risky prospect for an unknown quantity, the cinema started advertising a teaser campaign three weeks in advance. During the first week, posters were not just focused on the “man with no name” but also “the film with no name” and the “cinema with no name,” all those elements removed from the artwork until the second week of the campaign. UA allocated $20,000 in marketing, up to four times the usual amount spent on a launch there, and was rewarded with strong results – “bullish but not Bondish” Variety’s verdict.
However, the UA gamble did not pay off, especially when taking into account the high cost of buying the rights allied to huge marketing costs. Initial commercial projections proved unrealistic. Despite apparently hitting the box office mark in first-run dates in key cities, the film was pulled up short by its New York experience. Shunted straight into a showcase (wide) release rather than a first-run launch, it brought in a pitiful $153,000 from 75 theaters – even The Quiller Memorandum (1966) in its second week did better ($150,000 from 25). As a consequence when For a Few Dollars More was released in April/May, UA held off boking it into New York until “a suitable arrangement” could be made, which translated into hand-picking a dozen houses famed for appealing to action fans plus 600-seat arthouse the Trans-Lux West.
United Artists predicted $3.5 million in rentals (the amount returned to studios after cinemas take their cut of the gross) for A Fistful of Dollars and $4.5 million with For a Few Dollars More. Neither came close, the latter the marginally better performer with $2.2 million in rentals (enough for a lowly 41st on the annual chart) with the first film earning $2.1 million in rentals (46th) way behind more traditional performers like Hombre ($6.5 million for tenth spot), El Dorado ($5.9 million in 13th) and The War Wagon ($5.5 million in 15th).
The vaunted Bond-style box office explosion never materialized and it might have helped if UA had kept closer watch on the actual revenues posted in Italy for the series. While For a Few Dollars More increased by $2 million the takings of A Fistful of Dollars, the final film in the trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly produced lower grosses than even the first.
However, it did look as if The Good, the Bad and the Ugly would come good. UA opened it in two first-run cinemas in New York where each house retained it for six weeks. But although the final tally of $4.5 million (24th spot in the annual rankings) was the best of the series, it did not herald returns that made it anywhere near comparable to the Bonds.
It’s possible the movies did better in terms of admissions than the box office figures show. Distributors pushing foreign product into arthouses were generally able to achieve a high share of the rental – 50 per cent the going rate – because they were able to set rival arthouses against each other and movies with a sexy theme/star had inbuilt box office appeal, La Dolce Vita (1960) and And God Created Women (1956) the classic examples. But that would not be possible when trying to interest ordinary cinemas with a film lacking in sex.
When I researched the early Bonds for a previous Blog, I found that United Artists had only managed to achieve bookings for Dr No (1962) by lowering its rental demand. Exhibitors paid the studio just 30 per cent of the gross. And I wondered if perhaps the same occurred with A Fistful of Dollars given the star, like Sean Connery, was completely unknown. Of course, it would not explain why the series did not grow as expected.
Of course, there was a surprising winner and an unexpected loser in the whole ‘Dollars’ saga. Clint Eastwood emerged as the natural successor to John Wayne with a solid box office – and later critical – reputation for American westerns starting off with Hang ‘Em High (1968) which beat The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at the box office, while Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) proved a huge flop in the U.S.
Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone, Something To Do With Death (Faber & Faber, 2000), p160-162, p165-200; “Italo’s Own Oater Leads Box Office,” Variety, December 2, 1964, p16; “South Mountain Buys Dollar Score,” Variety, March 10, 1965, p58; “Jolly’s Colombo Discovers N.Y.C. Busy at Xmas,” Variety, December 22, 1965, p3; “Tight Race for Box Office Honours in Italy Looms as Thunder Leads Dollars,” Variety, January 65, 1966, p15; “Dollars World Distribution for UA,” Variety, March 22, 1966, p22; “Clint Eastwood Italo Features Face Litigation,” Variety, April 13, 1966, p29; “UA Cautious on Links to Italo Fistful; Faces Slap from Kurosawa,” Variety, July 13, 1966, p7; “Rome Court Rejects Plea for Seizure of Few Dollars Made By Fistful Film,” Variety, August 3, 1966, p28; “Clint Eastwood vs Jolly on 2 Segs of Rawhide ‘Billed’ New Italo Pic,” Variety, September 7, 1966, p15; “Italy Making More Westerns, Spy Films Than Star Vehicles,” Box Office, October 31, 1966, p13; “Hemstitched Feature,” Variety, November 23, 1966, p22; “UA Division Holds Screenings of Westerns,” Box Office, December 12, 1966, pE2; Advertisement, Variety, December 21, 1966, p12-13; “UA Gambles Dollars As Good As Bonds,” Variety, December 28, 1966, p7; “Fred Goldberg Shows Ads on UA ‘Dollar’ Films,” Box Office, January 2, 1967, pE4; “Review,” Box Office, January 9, 1967, pA11; “Fistful of Dollars: Male (and Italo) B.O.,” Variety, January 18, 1967, p7; “Fistful of Dollars: The Glad Reaper,” Variety, February 1, 1967, p5; “This Week’s N.Y. Showcases,” Variety, February 8, 1967, p9; “Fistful’s Weaker N.Y. B.O. Clench,” Variety, February 8, 1967, p7; “Methodical Campaign Kicks Off Ideal Fistful Ballyhoo in Toronto,” Box Office, May 1, 1967, pA1; “Few DollarsMore Runs 30% Ahead of First Dubbed Italo-Made Western, So Bond Analogy Makes Out,” Variety, May 31, 1967, p4; “N.Y. Slow to Fall Into Line,” Variety, May 31, 1967, p4; “B’way Still Boffo,” Variety, July 12, 1967, p9; “Carefully Picked,” Variety, July 12, 1967, p4; “B’way Biz Still Big,” Variety, July 19, 1967, p9; “Big Rental Films of 1967,” Variety, January 3, 1968, p25; “B’way B.O. Up,” Variety, January 31, 1968, p9; “Big Rental Films of 1968,” Variety, January 8, 1969, p15.
Producer Joseph E. Levine was so carried away by the sensational performance of Zulu (1964) in Britain that he earmarked a million-dollar marketing budget for its U.S. launch. Levine was already doing the rounds of U.S. exhibitors in January 1964 and it was reviewed that same month in Variety – which predicted it would be a “sturdy box office prospect” – leading observers to believe its launch was imminent. That it was held back till the summer suggested interest from the trade, not as fascinated by an obscure war in Africa as the British, was not as high as the producer would have liked. Even then Box Office magazine reckoned it “should be a box office smash” to emulate the $589,000 it had taken in nine weeks in the first run Plaza in London’s West End coupled with two weeks in 29 houses on the British ABC circuit.
But somewhere along the line Levine had lost heart and promoted it as if was Hercules all over again, 500 simultaneous bookings in a month, little time to build on the decent box office it attracted in New York in two weeks at the first run Palace. The drubbing Zulu (1964) received at the American box office – it did not even attract the $1 million in rentals needed to place it in the Variety annual box office chart – made trade journalists, while recognizing Michael Caine’s initial promise, reserve judgement on his future, observing that he “still has some ground to cover before he becomes as familiar to filmgoers as Sean Connery.”
Despite Zulu’s failure, Variety predicted that Caine’s performance had “won this blond young man a swift passport to potential stardom” and even while The Ipcress File (1965) divided critics, the trade paper reported “there’s no disputing Caine’s personal impact…the sky’s the limit.”
To justify his deal with Harry Saltzman, Caine was committed to appearing in ten films in five years, although the producer was not only happy to loan him out to other studios but share the spoils. That was an unusual trait, given that stars as varied as Sandra Dee, Carroll Baker and Rock Hudson bristled at what they saw as exploitation, when their paymaster retained the entire amount gained from loaning their services to other studios, often pocketing a hefty profit in the process. Caine, on the other hand, “kept the major share of any loan-out loot.”
After The Ipcress File, Caine would have five films released in the U.S. in the space of eight months from July 1966 to February 1967, an output that could make or break him. In order of U.S. launch these were: black comedy The Wrong Box (1966), ribald sex drama Alfie (1966), caper movie Gambit (1966), a second outing for Harry Palmer in Funeral in Berlin (1966) and big-budget steamy Otto Preminger drama Hurry Sundown (1967) not to mention a reissue in 1967 of Zulu to capitalize on his growing fame.
The breadth of acting skills Caine brought to these diverse movies caught the attention, by and large, of the critics as well as the industry. The National Association of Theater Owners, proclaimed him their Future Star of the Year in September 1966 with the ringing endorsement of “never has a newcomer to films so fully and immediately captured the imagination of the world audience.”
Oddly enough, there was no better follow-up as far as America was concerned to The Ipcress File than The Wrong Box in which he was a last-minute replacement for American actor George Hamilton. The Wrong Box (1966) presented Caine as the timid romantic opposite of the lothario of Alfie and the accomplished seducer of The Ipcress File (1965) but it was the kind of role to make critics sit up and wonder what else he had in his acting box of tricks.
But the release strategies employed by the various distributors, Columbia for The Wrong Box, Universal for Gambit and Paramount for the other three, ensured that the movies did not go down the Levine saturation-release route that had done for Zulu. Limited openings in prestigious arthouse-style cinemas allowed for slow build. In fact, it was almost tantamount to creating ‘sleepers’ out of every film. A film that remained for months at a time in one or two cinemas in a major city was the best way of driving up word of mouth. And during this hectic period whenever Caine was promoting one film, he was also being asked about all the rest.
It was almost inevitable that when a new picture opened, all the others were still playing. As a measure of how well this unplanned strategy worked, at Xmas 1966 his films were playing in six first run cinemas in New York, far more than any other star, and far more than any other star in the history of Hollywood. Each new opening boosted the box office of all the rest and when Oscar consideration or Year-End Best Awards entered the equation they served notice that, through his other films, this was an actor with a wide range of skills.
What had become quickly apparent to studios was that they had no idea how to assess Caine’s box office appeal. Such reticence proved invaluable. The limitations imposed on his film launches ensured that audience demand would dictate the release pattern. Only after Universal had opened The Ipcress File to sensational business at the Coronet in New York at the start of August 1965 did it consider widening the movie out. Audience response gave the studio the confidence to book it towards the end of the following month into Grauman’s Chinese in Los Angeles for an “unprecedented booking.” The two cinemas could not have been more opposite – the New York house seating just 590, the Los Angeles venue nearly three times as much with 1,517 seats. The studio was “evidently convinced to go commercial with the picture nationwide as booking into Grauman’s indicates.”
Columbia almost copied that campaign to the letter. The Wrong Box opened in early July 1966 to an “amazing” $35,000 at the 700-seat Cinema One. What was just as astonishing was that it was pulling in $28,500 in its seventh week by which time it had begun first run engagements across the country – a “socko” $25,000 in Chicago, “wham” $25,000 in Philadelphia, “boffola” $20,000 in Boston, “boffo” $18,000 in Washington D.C.
Although distributed by a different studio, Alfie followed a similar pattern, opening in New York again at the Coronet and also at the 500-seat New Embassy, breaking all-time records at both cinemas. Alfie, however,was less of a risk. On the financial front, it had already recouped its $750,000 costs solely from its London run. On the critical front, the film had won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes.
Just as important was Paramount’s marketing backing. A 16-page A3 Pressbook began by detailing both the critical acclaim enjoyed by the picture on its New York opening and its subsequent commercial success. Every advertisement was garnished with critical quotes: “Alfie bubbles with impudent humor and ripe modern wit” (Bosley Crowther, New York Times), “delightful comedy” (Judith Crist, NBC Today Show), “you are going to enjoy Alfie very much” (Life). “There’s no question about it,” crowed the Pressbook, “Alfie has completely conquered New York…(and) is the new champ of the press.” The New York Times had run four separate articles on the film, major magazines lined up to profile the star, on publicity duties Caine had come across as charming and personable, and the movie’s theme song topped the charts.
Three pages of the Pressbook were devoted to Michael Caine, calling him “multi-talented” and setting out the proposition, “Will Alfie’s Michael Caine Become the Newest Teenage Idol?” Caine predicted, “I believe it takes at least five movies to make a star of anyone,” counting Zulu as his first, plus The Wrong Box and Alfie. Given Funeral in Berlin and Gambit were still to come, he was already well on the way to proving himself correct.
Alfie launched in New York a few weeks after The Wrong Box had already whetted appetites. The Coronet delivered a $43,000 opener and the New Embassy $33,400, both all-time non-holiday records. Second weeks were equally potent, $40,000 at the Coronet, $33,000 at the New Embassy.
So Paramount “nursed” the sleeper. It didn’t properly expand until Thanksgiving and even then was limited to 56 theaters which had to commit to 14-week runs that would see it safely past Xmas and New Year so as to be “in active exhibition” during Oscar season. Before the first Oscar nomination was in, Paramount had pulled in $3m million in U.S. rentals (the studio’s share of the box office gross) and about the same again overseas (including Britain). Winning five Oscar nominations – including Best Picture and Best Actor – boosted takings.
The Xmas 1966 unofficial “Michael Caine Season” saw a three-cinema New York opening for Funeral in Berlin (budgeted at $2.6 million) and one house for Gambit while Alfie was still playing in two houses. The Harry Palmer sequel rocked up with a “wow” $40,000 – equivalent to $356,000 today – opening week at the 813-seat Forum, an “amazing” $21,000 ($187,000 equivalent) at the 450-seat Guild (extra shows to cope with the demand) and $37,000 ($330,000 equivalent) at the 568-seat Tower East. Gambit knocked up a “smash” $20,000 at the 561-seat Sutton with Alfie bringing in a “wham” £21,000 in its 18th week at the New Embassy plus $14,000 in its first week at the 430-seat Baronet. The capacities of all these cinemas showed that, in reality, they were glorified arthouses rather than the bigger 1,000-plus-seaters where the big-budget pictures resided.
In Britain, a top box office draw, in America king of the arthouses.
How well his movies did outside that limitation depended on popularity and accessibility. Pairings with top female stars like Shirley MacLaine (Gambit) and Jane Fonda (Hurry Sundown) ensured that the actor’s transition into the Hollywood elite was painless. His career has had many ups and downs, and many fans know him only from his appearance in Christopher Nolan films, but in celebrating a career that encompasses nearly 70 years as a star, no one should forget the eight months that turned him into one.
SOURCES: “Levine Heads Zulu showmanship Meets,” Box Office, January 13, 1964, p8; “Big Zulu Whoop,” Variety, January 15, 1964, p3; Review of Zulu, Variety, January 29, 1964, p6; “Levine Sells His Theatres,” Box Office, February 10, 1964, pNE2; Advert for Zulu, Variety, April 29, p26-27; “Britain Bubbles with Talent,” Variety, April 29, 1964, p58; Review of Zulu, Box Office, June 22, 1964, pA11; Review of The Other Man, Variety, September 16, 1964, p41; Review of The Ipcress File, Variety, March 1965, p6; “Newcomer Talent in British Pix,” Variety, May 12, 1965, p57; Advertisement for Zulu, Box Office, Jun 15, 1964, p3; “Ipcress File Pre-Release in NY Aug 2,” Box Office, July 26, 1965, pE4; “Michael Caine No Bottled-In Bond,” Variety, September 15, 1965, p30; “Grauman’s Sets Extended Run of Ipcress File,” Box Office, September 20, 1965, pNC1; “Preminger Signs Caine,” Box Office, April 11, 1966, pE1; “Funeral in Berlin Budget $2,600,000,” Variety, April 27, 1966, p29; “Caine Is Able at B.O. with Five Star Roles in 33 Months since Zulu,” Variety, August 31, 1966, p2; “Michael Caine Named NATO Future Star,” Box Office, September 19, 1966, p3; “Par Nurses Its Alfie with Limited Playoff Through Holidays,” Variety, October 12, 1966, p21; “Michael Caine On Tour for Funeral in Berlin,” Box Office, November 21, 1966, pE2; “Embassy Reissues Three Caine, Belmondo Films,” Box Office, January 9, 1967, p10; “Alfie Could Be Par’s Tom Jones,” Variety, February 1, 1967, p3. Box office figures taken from the “Picture Grosses” section of Variety: July 20, 1966-September 24, 1966 and December 28, 1966.
MGM wasn’t the first studio to hit upon the idea of re-editing episodes of a television series into a movie for cinema release. Small-screen The Lone Ranger had spawned The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1952) and Disney had stitched together episodes from its Davy Crockett franchise to create Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955) and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1955). The Challenge for Rin Tin Tin (1957) derived from The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Frontier Rangers (1959) born out of Northwest Passage, the Texas John Slaughter series the basis for five movies shown between 1960 and 1962, Crimebusters (1962) originated from Cain’s Hundred and Lassie’s Great Adventure (1963) from five episodes of the eponymous series.
But all these movies had one major disadvantage. Like their source material, they appeared in black-and-white. The Disney pair mined some box office gold, but primarily as matinee material. The rest were fillers, scheduled for the bottom half of a double bill and aimed at suburban and small-town cinemas and drive-ins desperate for anything to fill out a program. And all were nothing cruder than editing two or more episodes together to make a feature film.
MGM took a different approach. Instead of merging two different episodes, albeit starring the same stars, the studio decided to take one episode and expand it, filling out the story with subplots and extra characters and spicing up proceedings with levels of sex and violence that would not be tolerated on mainstream television. As important, it would be shot in color to make it stand out from the television series being shown in black-and-white.
First picture in the trial scheme was To Trap a Spy (changed form the initial To Catch a Spy), an expanded version of the television pilot known as The Vulcan Affair, and as well as series leads Robert Vaughn (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) and David McCallum (The Great Escape, 1963) toplined future Bond femme fatale Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball, 1965). A second movie was culled from The Double Affair which had been screened on November 17, 1964, with an European star with a considerable pedigree in Senta Berger (Major Dundee, 1965).
Since MGM had no idea whether the spy series, launched in the U.S. on NBC on 22 September 1964, would catch on abroad, where in any case stations paid comparatively little to screen top American shows, its initial idea was to release films only for the foreign market.
In fact, the studio didn’t wait to see if the BBC could make a hit out of the debuting The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series and shunted out To Trap a Spy before the series even screened in Britain. And lacking momentum from television, it went out as the support on the ABC circuit in Britain to The Americanization of Emily (1965) starring Julie Andrews and James Garner.
At that time, the ABC chain was not beholden to the double bill idea. In fact, more than half the annual weekly releases went out as solo affairs. A double bill was more likely to suggest that there were doubts over the pulling power of the main film. There was no way of judging the box office appeal of any film put out in the lower half of a double bill.
The odd thing was that if MGM had held off pressing the button on the circuit release, To Trap a Spy would have demonstrated box office success. At the same time as the double bill was simultaneously released at nationwide first run theaters, To Trap a Spy opened in London’s West End in May 1965 at the 529-seat Ritz and delivered the best business MGM had enjoyed there for two years. It returned to the 556-seat Studio One, also in the West end, in October that year as the top attraction in a double bill that included Glenn Ford-Henry Ford western The Rounders (1965) and in its fifth week took in an excellent $5,600 and a few weeks later shifted back to the Ritz.
Between released the first and second Uncle pictures, MGM had launched a major marketing campaign on the back of the launch of the series on BBC. One marketing gimmick, inviting the audience to write in for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. certificates, brought in over half a million applications. MGM splashed out $85,000 marketing The Spy with My Face (1965). Again, the movie went out in an ABC circuit release – in July 1965 – as part of a double bill, with Son of a Gunfighter (1965), but this time the Uncle film topped the bill. Launched in the West End at the much larger 1,330-seat Empire it took $22,000 in its opening week. Nationally, “it was far and away above average for a top-grossing picture in the UK.”
To Trap A Spy and The Spy with My Face each grossed $2 million in the UK market. By January 1996, a third Uncle film had launched in the British market, One Spy Too Many, based on the two-episode Alexander the Great Affair which had screened in America in September 1965. This time MGM held off from ABC circuit release until mid-February until One Spy Too Many had cleaned up in January in the West End, $25,000 at the Empire, helped along by a Xmas merchandizing bonanza that saw the country flooded with memorabilia, paperbacks, three singles and an album. It broke studio records in 91 of the 125 situations it first played.
The success of the first pair pointed up the potential U.S. box office from these featurized episodes and MGM put together the double bill The Spy with My Face/To Trap a Spy on the assumption that the films at the very least would pick up business outside first run venues where bigger-budgeted pictures dominated and provide respite for showcase (wide release) theaters, drive-ins and small cinemas suffering from product shortage. The bigger a hit a movie became, whether roadshow or not, the longer it took to move down the food chain.
MGM was also inspired by the merchandizing boom generated by the television. A toy gun was well on its way to notching up sales of two million, and there were in addition, games, puzzles, trading cards, costumes and masks and chewing gum.
The MGM was entering a very crowded espionage market. Not only had Thunderball taken the top off the box office with an explosive debut in Xmas 1965, but any new entrant into the field in 1966 would come up against such spy behemoths as Columbia’s Our Man Flint (1966) and The Silencers (1966) from Twentieth Century Fox as well as more offbeat spy numbers like Paramount’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and other pictures aiming for a slice of the cake like Where the Spies Are (1966) with David Niven and That Man in Istanbul (1965).
Variety magazine was sniffy about the double bill’s prospects – “for the least discriminating audiences” was its take on To Trap a Spy although Box Office deemed it “far better story-wise” than The Spy with My Face.
The Spy with My Face/To Trap a Spy gained surprising traction in first run, even though MGM was demanding a 50 per cent share of the box office. In some cities it ran smack bang into the openings of one or other of the biggies while Thunderball played for months on end. Even so, the results were surprisingly good. Leading the single cinema first run bows was $24,000 – equivalent to $214,000 now – in Chicago (and a second week of $18,000). Boston audiences delivered $16,000 (plus $11,000 second week), Detroit $18,000 (and $12,000). It ran for three weeks in Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Providence and two weeks in St Louis, Buffalo, St Louis, San Francisco and Cleveland.
There were one-week bookings at other major cities like Seattle, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Cincinnati. Except in Portland (“drab” first week and “dull” the second) and Seattle (“okay”) the box office verdict varied from “potent,” “virile” and “sock” to “nice,” “fine,” and “pleasant.” Box Office magazine reckoned that in Hartford the duo produced revenues over three times the average and in Memphis twice the average.
Following first run, it would go into wider breaks in these various cities. Some cities ignored first run and opted for a straight “showcase” (wide release) bow, New York leading the way with $104,000 – $928,000 equivalent today – from 25 cinemas, Kansas City bringing in $35,000 from 10 in week one and $25,000 from 10 in week two, and Baltimore good for $40,000 from 18. In new England cinemas and drive-ins united for a multiple run release hat “rang up some of the briskest business of the winter months despite the adverse weather conditions.” The only downside was the Pacific chain of drive-ins refusing to show the double bill on the grounds that previous experience of showing movies adapted from television series had “brought patron beefs” and that its own tests had not worked.
Even when The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series ended after three-and-a-half seasons, MGM continued bringing out movies, eventually totalling eight in all. The others were: One of Our Spies Is Missing (1966), The Spy in the Green Hat (1966), The Karate Killers (1967), The Helicopter Spies (1968) and How to Steal the World (1968).
Towards the end of the decade the Easy Rider (1969) phenomenon prompted a brief vogue for box office analysts to point to low-budget pictures generating the biggest profit. Nobody tended to include the first three Uncle films in this equation regardless of the fact that, costing an original $200,000 per episode plus extra for reshoots and editing, they were, on a profit-to-cost basis, extraordinarily successful, easily bringing home revenues in the region to 10-15 times their budgets.
SOURCES: Allen Eyles, ABC: The First Name in Entertainment (CTA, 1993), p123; “Another Uncle Sequel As O’Seas Theatrical,” Variety, September 23, 1964, p79; “Uncle Gets 3rd Whirl As O’seas Feature,” Variety, January 27, 1965, p26; “International Soundtrack,” Variety, May 26, 1965, p26; “Toys from Uncle,” Variety, June 30, 1965, p42; “Uncle Stunt in London Is Metro Hit,” Variety, December 8, 1965, p23; “Metro Sees Uncle TV Stanzas As B.O. Kin to James Bond in Theaters,” Variety, February 2, 1966, p1; Review, Variety, February 16, 1966, p18; Review, Box Office, February 21, 1966, pB11; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, March 14, 1966, p22; “One Spy Looms MGM Leader in Britain,” Variety, March 20, 1966, p29; “Drive-Ins in New England Preparing To Solve Springtime Problems,” Box Office, March 21, 1966, pNE4; “Pacific Prefers Not To Follow Video,” Variety, April 20, 1966, p24; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, June 20, 1966, p14; “How Uncle in Great Britain Clicked Via Tie-Ups with Tele,” Variety, June 22, 1966, p17; “Uncle TV Conversions Boffo at B.O. Theatrically O’Seas,” Variety, March 20, 1968, p4; Box Office figures taken from the weekly edition of Variety in the “Picture Grosses” section on the following dates: in 1965 on November 10 and December 8, in 1966 from February 2 until June 1; and August 18, 1966.
Unusually for an Otto Preminger project, this took an unconscionably long time to get off the ground, given he had purchased rights to the bestseller by Evelyn Piper which had been published in 1957. The first problem was that no one could lick the screenplay. Getting first bite was Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, 1967), followed by “wholesale doctoring” by Dalton Trumbo (Exodus, 1960) who delivered a “polished script.” But that failed to satisfy the director either and triggered further attempts by Charles Eastman (Little Fauss and Big Halsy, 1970) and Arthur Kopit (Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mummy’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, 1967). But nobody seemed able to come up with a satisfactory job. The book had been set in New York as had the various subsequent screenplays. The solution appeared to be to shift the location some 3,000 miles to London. Penelope Mortimer (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) wrote a draft but ended up having a fight with Preminger and withdrew and the project was completed by her husband John Mortimer (John and Mary, 1969).
The Levin screenplay was dismissed as being too faithful to the book, the kidnapper in this instance turning out to be a former teacher who was childless and afflicted with “menopausal psychosis,” a character Preminger found weak and uninteresting. Trumbo changed the villain into a wealthy woman, not just childless but judged unfit to adopt, an approach the director deemed “very theatrical and wrong.” The Kopit and Eastman versions offered no better solution. “I almost gave up Bunny Lake,” admitted Preminger, “because while working in the script I realized that women would not like the film…because they are afraid of all situations in which a child is in danger.” After considering transplanting the story to Paris, Preminger finally settled on London, and hired the Mortimers whose villain brought the picture a 2new dimension.”
Until now, and in keeping with the original novel, Newhouse, while assisting in the investigation, had been a psychiatrist. In the hands of the Mortimers he now morphed into a police inspector. Wilson who had been Newhouse’s quite respectable friend turned into a drunken reprobate. At this point the heroine’s name remained Blanche as in the book. There was one other significant element that changed between the initial Mortimer script and the final shooting script: at the start of the film the Ann and Steven were shown reacting as if the child was there, whereas when the movie went before camera the question of the child’s existence remained in doubt. Penelope Mortimer dropped out when, summoned with her husband to Honolulu where Preminger was filming In Harm’s Way, she was roundly ignored.
Filming was originally scheduled to slip in between Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Exodus (1960) with a budget set at $2 million. But something always seemed to get in the way. Occasionally it was a bigger project. After Columbia announced filming was scheduled for 1961, Bunny Lake was pushed back to spring 1962 to permit the filming of Advise and Consent (1961). Then The Cardinal (1962) took precedence but only to the extent of shifting the Bunny project till later that year. Then it was set to be completed by fall 1963. Further cause of delay was the decision to accommodate the pregnancy of that Lee Remick who had signed for the leading female role. But when she was ready to go, Preminger was not and she fell out of the equation.
At one point, fearful of his schedule becoming too crowded – filled with expensive projects like The Cardinal and In Harm’s Way (1965) – Preminger had tried to wriggle out of the directorial commitment, planning to limit his involvement to producing only, but studio Columbia would not accept this. Preminger was in considerable demand, like a major movie star contracted to deals with rival studios, in 1961 for three pictures with United Artists and four for Columbia and by 1965 adding into the mix a seven-picture deal with Paramount, and most of these big pictures, leaving little time for a relatively low-budget – by his standards – picture.
Finally, Bunny Lake received the green light with filming beginning in London on April 9, 1965. Unusually, the movie was shot entirely on location, the director expressing a “yen for realistic on the spot” filming in a dozen places including a pub, the Cunard office and Scotland Yard. A school in Hampstead doubled for the nursery, the mews flat was found just behind Trafalgar Square. He was quick to point this was not a matter of economy. “What you save in studio (time) you spend in other ways. But I think it leads to more urgent film-making.” Somewhat surprisingly, he aimed to shoot in black-and-white, colour now being predominant except for low-budget movies and those wishing to take advantage of black-and-white world War Two newsreel footage as was the case with his previous picture In Harm’s Way.
Carolyn Lynley (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) was given the lead with Keir Dullea (David and Lisa, 1962) in the pivotal role of her brother. Neither could be considered a big star although Lynley had the second female lead in The Cardinal and moved up the credit rankings to female lead in the low-budget Shock Treatment (1964). But she was such a hot prospect Preminger in 1965 signed her to a four-picture deal although this was not exclusive as she also had contracts with Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia. Dullea was potentially a better prospect, picking up some acting kudos for David and Lisa, the designated star of that picture and The Thin Red Line (1964) but only second lead for Mail Order Bride (1963) and the Italian-made The Naked Hours (1963).
Although some decades away from his Hollywood box office prime, the casting of Oscar-winner and five-time nominee Laurence Olivier (Spartacus, 1960) was something of a coup, although he was only hired because another actor proved too expensive. Other parts were filled by actors experienced in the Preminger school of film-making, Martita Hunt from The Fan (1949)- and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Victor Maddern (Saint Joan, 1958) and David Oxley (Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse).
The first day’s shooting was in a television studio to capture the newsreader and pop group The Zombies which the content of the show shown in the pub on television. Contrary to depictions of Preminger as a martinet on set, he was keen in rehearsals to “put everyone at ease” although he emphasised the need for “slow, thoughtful diction.” The famous Preminger wrath came down heavily on personnel failing to carry out their job correctly. But he accepted Olivier’s decision to omit a particular phrase. He was specific about the look he wished to achieve, required high contrast black-and-white cinematography while nothing was to be done “to enhance Carol Lynley’s beauty: instead…to deepen her features, bring out her emotions.”
And he was determined to get what he wanted, 18 takes required to complete a lengthy tracking shot that flows Inspector Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) and Miss Smollett (Anna Massey) as they negotiate a passage through a group of noisy children in a classroom and then across a hall. Accepting Lynley’s difficulty in expressing the pain of losing a child, he instructed her to forget about subtext and play the moment. However, 14 takes of a scene between Lynley and Olivier was too much for the actress but she was comforted when Preminger told her the famous actor was the problem not her. But on another occasion, Preminger ended up giving her an almost line for line reading of how he wanted the scene played. The only way he got what he wanted was to reduce her to “sobbing uncontrollably” and then start the camera rolling.
Without question, Keir Dullea came off first. “He would humiliate you, he would scream at you…his dripping sarcasm was the worst of it,” recalled Dullea. “I was always very prepared in terms of knowing my lines…but the stress, there was some action where I was supposed to put a glass down or pick up a glass” that Dullea kept getting wrong. In face of what he deemed incompetence, Preminger accused him of being “an actor who can’t even remember a line and if heremembers a line he can’t remember an action…what, you can’t do these two things at the same time.” In the end Dullea faked a nervous breakdown and after than “he never screamed at me again.”
Olivier would occasionally coming to rescue, persuading the director to ease off and “stop screaming at the children.” Olivier found Preminger such a bully that it “almost put me off his Carmen Jones, which I found an inspired piece of work…It’s a miracle it came from such a heavy-handed egotist.” On the other hand Noel coward, who played the landlord Wilson, believed Preminger an excellent director.
Preminger spun his marketing on a similar gimmick to that utilised by Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho (1960) in preventing the public from entering once the movie had started. To make this more dramatic, he had clocks installed in the lobbies of theaters that counted down the length of the performance and a sign that stated “nobody admitted while the clock is ticking.” Preminger was credited with coming up with a longer tagline for the advertisements: “Not even Alfred Hitchcock will be admitted after the film has started.”
The only problem was Return from the Ashes, released at the same time, had adopted a similar marketing ruse, nobody admitted “after Fabi enters the bath.” Despite this, Preminger went hell-for-leather for this marketing trick, to the extent of adding a rider to exhibitor standard contracts to that effect, not a problem in more sophisticated cities where by now patrons had become accustomed to turning up for a picture’s announced start time but a problem in smaller towns and cities where the whole point of continuous programme (i.e. no break between one film and another) was that moviegoers could walk in whenever they liked.
The whole tone of the marketing did not meet the approval of two important segments of the greater movie community. The National Association of Theater Owners opined that the marketing campaign was weak and were astonished to learn that there was nothing Columbia could so about it – Preminger had advertising-publicity approval. Allowing that some of the advertising images for Preminger pictures, courtesy of designer Saul Bass – The Man with the Golden Arm (1953), Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus etc – were among the most famous in Hollywood history, it would appear Preminger knew what he was doing. But, in fact, although the Saul Bass credit sequence showing pieces of newspaper being torn away made sense in the framework of the picture, the idea was not so effective taken out of that context.
Not intentionally, perhaps, Preminger also riled the critics, deciding that to “preserve the secrecy of the surprise ending,” the movie would open without the normal advance screenings for reviewers. Such action was more likely to set alarm bells ringing, it being a standard assumption among critics that the only films that went down this route were stinkers. From a practical point-of-view it also ensured that marketing was undercut since the lack of timed reviews denied the picture an essential promotional tool.
Finally, the movie ended up in a war with the censors. Many states in the U.S. had their own censors. Columbia objected to having to wait on the say-so of a local censor – in this case Kansas – before being able to release a movie. And for any release to be delayed if there was any nit-picking by the censor, especially as this movie had an undercurrent of incest. So Columbia refused to conform and failed to submit Bunny Lake Is Missing to the Kansas censors. After being promptly banned for such arrogance, Columbia objected again and the case went to the Kansas State Supreme Court which judged that the censor was unconstitutional. That resulted in the censors losing their jobs when the board was abandoned and the movie entering release a good while after its initial opening dates.
Although it made no impact at the Oscars, Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris picked it as one the year’s ten best and it was nominated for cinematography and art direction at the Baftas. The film was a flop, failing to return even $1 million in rentals at the U.S. box office. In fact it probably made more when it was sold to ABC TV for around $800,000.
SOURCES: Chris Fujiwara, The World and Its Double, The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, p330-342; (Faber and Faber, 2008) “Trends,” Variety, January 14, 1959, p30; “Ira Levin Pacted by Preminger for Bunny,” Variety, September 2, 1959, p2; “Col Primed To Start ½ Dozen Prods,” Variety, April 5, 1961, p3; “Otto Preminger Views Film Festivals As Important Marketplaces,” Box Office, May 1, 1961, p11; “Trumbo May Script for UA,” Variety, May 31, 1961, p5; “Bunny Lake Delayed,” Variety, June 7, 1961, p18; “Preminger Postpones One,” Box Office, June 12, 1961, p13; “Otto Preminger to Film Cardinal for Col,” Box Office, August 7, 1961, -10; “Otto Preminger Is Guest of Soviet Film Makers,” Box Office , May 14, 1962, pE-4; “Two Writers Signed,” Box Office, August 6, 1962, pSW-3; “Preminger,” Variety, September 12, 1962, p15; “Preminger’s New Rap at Costly U.S. Distribution,” Variety, October 10, 1962, p7; “Preminger Gets Rights to Hurry Sundown,” Box Office, November 23, 1964, p9; “Prem’s Next in London,” Variety, January 13, 1965, p18; “Preminger Signs Actress for Four More Pictures,” Box Office, February 8, 1965, pW-3; “Advertisement,” Variety, April 7, 1965, p1; “Preminger-Paramount Pact Calls for 7 Films,” Box Office, April 26, 1965, p7; “100% Location for Bunny,” Variety, May 5, 1965, p29; “Not Even Hitch,” Variety, September 1, 1965, p4; “Preminger’s Nix on Pre-Opening Critics,” Variety, September 22, 1965, p16; “2 Pix Enforce Entrance Time on Ticket Buyers,” Variety, September 29, 1965, p5; “Time Rules Are Set for Bunny Shows,” Box Office, October 4, 1965, p13; “Preminger’s Promotional Prerogative,” Variety, October 27, 1965, p13; “Clock for Bunny Lake,” Box Office, November 8, 1965, p2; “Village Voice Vocal on Bests,” Variety, January 26, 1966, p4; “Col Kayos Kansas Censoring,” Variety, August 3, 1966, p5.
Wooing the audience was no longer required after Goldfinger (1964) had broken the box office bank. Thunderball, claimed producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, was “the hottest merchandise campaign you have ever handled” as the first four pages of the Pressbook went to show. No longer was there a retailer free-for-all with companies which had nothing to do with endorsements jumping on the Bondwagon.
The potential for promotional tie-in was so high that retailers and manufacturers were willing to spend a fortune to become involved and, in so doing, provide a massive spread of free advertising. Colgate had an entire line of toiletries for men including after shave, shaving lotion, deodorant, and talcum powder, each item branded with the 007 logo with Colgate investing in a massive advertising campaign aimed not just as men but the women who buy for men.
Shoe-wear manufacturer Endicott Johnson set up a nationwide contest through the Montgomery Ward chain of stores. Customers were invited to participate in a free sweepstake and store managers were encouraged to become active in promoting Thunderball at sales points throughout their shops.
Toy manufactuer A.C. Gilbert had devised a James Bond 007 Road Race which would be promoted in the biggest marketing campaign in Sears Roebuck history to 60 million homes. The catalog would feature a five-page spread. “Beatles fans will be reached through a TV buy that Sears has made advertising the Road Race on ABC-TV’s Beatles Cartoon Show.” Adlers Slacks was the exclusive licensee for James Bond 007 Boys Slacks – with two hidden pockets. Revere Knitting Mills was promoting four sweaters “as worn by James Bond.”
Other licensed products included The Official James Bond Secret Agent 007 Shooting Attache Case, Harry Diamond sports shorts with the Bond logo, Allison tee-shirts and sweat shorts, bubble gum and trading cards from the Philadelphia Chewing Gum Corp, and a walkie-talkie set from Gabriel. In addition, Weldon was selling “007 Pyjamas – Go to Bed Dressed to Kill,” Voit manufactured underwater equipment, Spatz advertised its trenchcoats in Playboy, Trimount clothing range included items for men and boys, and Milton Bradley had four board games and six jigsaw puzzles.
So for the first time in history, exhibitors had to do nothing to attract customers, no zany attention-grabbing gimmicks required, because the massive cross-promotional campaign devised by the producers ensured that potential moviegoers could hardly go anywhere without coming across something alerting customers to the movie.
All this was in addition to the normal standard promotional tools such as original soundtrack album and paperback movie tie-in. Tom Jones had released a single and six other artists had brought out instrumental singles and albums. Trade magazine Cash Box noted that the Bond name signified “something big in the worlds of film and music…many labels have themed LPs after the valuable James Bond Agent 007 image.” Signet had brought out the movie tie-in paperback with artwork on front and back covers.
The bulk of the Pressbook was taken up with advertising and information about the licensed products leaving just three pages for the editorial section. By now of course Sean Connery was a big box office star so he received considerable coverage, explaining that he had been chosen for Dr No as a result of a London newspaper poll. There was space too for the movie’s playgirls – former Miss France Claudine Auger, villainess Luciana Paluzzi best known to American audiences through the Five Fingers television series, Molly Peters and a return for Martine Beswick who had appeared in From Russia with Love.
Not surprisingly, the Aston Martin DB5, which had caused a sensation in Goldfinger, also returned. The customised version cost $45,000 (worth $400,000 today), compared to the usual price of $13,000, and came complete with twin Browning machine guns, tire slashers, revolving number plates, radar screen, ejector seat, and retractable bullet proof shields.
Fred MacMurray doesn’t actually wear a woman’s hat in this picture, he just imagines himself wearing one. But that image was all it took for the marketeers to do it to death. Warner Brothers clearly believed the picture was going to be a winner and produced a whopping 32-page A3 Pressbook (double the normal size) in a bid to persuade exhibitors of its potential. That included a blockbusting two dozen adverts. Although in the 1960s as this series on Pressbooks has shown, movies were not sold just on the basis of one core image, but even so a limit was generally called when the number of options reached eight or nine.
On top of that, the Pressbook writers provided interesting copy for editors who might file a snipper or two around the movie’s launch. Arlene Dahl, for instance, contended that a large proportion of the most prominent women in history – Salome, Cleopatra, Elizabeth I – had, like her, red hair. Writing a syndicated beauty column, Dahl also offered advice on wearing perfume.
Eli Wallach put forward a convincing argument for remaining a supporting actor. “Get your name above the title,” he opined, “and if you make a hit you have to play the same thing over and over – the actor gets sick of the monotony and sooner or later so does the public.” Polly Bergen, who based her screen wardrobe on Jackie Kennedy, argued that ordinary women were well turned out in America whereas abroad that was the preserve of the wealthy. Starting out in Wisconsin Fred MacMurray scraped paint off cars for $20 a week.
To get exhibitors in the mood to sell a political comedy, the Pressbook offered eight “punchy and funny” spoof campaign posters, suggesting they be positioned in door panels or along one wall in a straight line and on a voting booth in the lobby. Expanding on the concept in their local area, exhibitors were encourage to recruit an important woman “holding some office” who could be corralled into acting as a “president” embarking on an imitation tour backed up by supporters carrying placards.
Silent screen star Carmel Myers, who manufactured a fragrance line for men, was enrolled by Warner Brothers for a nationwide tour in part talking about the subject that is key to the movie’s subplot – “can a beautiful and glamorous woman be a successful business executive?” A high-flying vamp of the silent era, Myers starred in Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) and later had her own short-lived television series before entering the beauty business.
Except twice, each of the other myriad adverts stuck with a photo of MacMurray wearing a hat. The taglines, running on the theme of what happened to the female President’s male consort, varied only slightly. “When a woman becomes President, what happens when her poor husband becomes First Lady?” / “President arrives in New York today, leaves First Lady home with knitting”/ “Women rise, men revolt, everybody cheer”
Inevitably, advertising focused on politics. “Republicans and Democrats agree this is the funniest picture you’ll ever see” / “First male First Lady takes Washington by storm” / “Is America prepared for the first woman president and her First Lady?
Some taglines took a different approach. “This year a woman will be elected President of U.S….and a man will be elected to the Comedy Hall of Fame” /”Vote the sdtraight ticket (the movie ticket, we mean” / “When you cast your next vote for President, be sure to do it at (this) theatre” / My father is the hostess with the moistest.”