Behind the Scenes: Exposing the Myth of the “Sound Revolution”

It’s only according to film historians and movies like Babylon (2022) that the transition to sound in 1927 was instantaneous. Maybe from a contorted academic perspective, but not for audiences and not for exhibitors. That The Jazz Singer (1927) proved momentous required not one revolution, but two. For it was responsible for nothing less than the beginnings of the wide release.

There had been sporadic attempts at day-dating, day-and-date, simultaneous openings, saturation bookings, whatever you wanted to call it, from 1913 to 1920. You might find an occasional picture released all at once into 20 houses in New York, but more likely it was a picture that showed up on two or three screens in Detroit, San Francisco or St Louis. In 1921 there were 300 day-and-date bookings for Chaplin’s The Kid with 70 prints allocated to New York and 40 to Chicago. But wide release remained rare.

In 1924 in Cleveland 65 nabes signed up to day-date Let Not Man Put Asunder and First National attempted to interest 100 theaters in day-dating Lilies of the Field. In 1927 MGM promoted Greta Garbo-John Gilbert in Love as opening, without specific dates, in “approximately” 100 theaters while Fox claimed 90 had signed up for Colleen Moore in Her Wild Oat (1927).

However, “simultaneous” was widely open to interpretation, not necessarily meaning day-dating.  The kind of release system we know today remained rare and sporadic. Wide release did not take off because there was no reason for it to do so.

While The Jazz Singer single-handedly thrust Warner Brothers into the higher echelons of the industry, it did not herald a tidal wave of talkies. Despite its success, the jury was still out – was it a gimmick or a revolution? Without the complications of sound, movies were a $1.5 billion ($25 billion today) business and the idea that theater owners would cotton on to the potential of sound and rush to become “wired” was soon demolished. Predictions of 350 sound installations by the end of 1927 proved wildly optimistic, less than 100 theaters obliging.

Exhibitor antipathy could be laid in large part at the studio door. Owners had to pay the cost of changing to sound – plus a weekly royalty to Vitaphone of 10 cents per seat – with no guarantee that the trend would last or, more importantly, that it would iron out existing inequalities.  Studios and exhibitors were at war. Exhibitor anger against studios was demonstrated by the volume of complaints to the 32 Film Boards of Trade, over 23,000 in 1925-26 – more than one for every theater in existence – wrongs righted to the tune of $4.6 million in damages.

The studios had their own complaints against exhibitors: of the $650 million paid by the public for theater tickets in 1926, only $185 million found its way into their coffers as rentals, around 28 per cent of the gross, remarkably low by modern standards. With profit margins on film production hovering around 15 per cent, studios, preparing to invest $159 million in movies in the 1927-1928 season, could be forgiven for believing they were taking all the risk, with exhibitors hiving off so much profit they could afford more – $250 million – in theater construction.

Exhibition was a sore point for studios since they had so little share of it. By the end of 1926, they owned around five percent of the total. Neither studio-owned chains nor independent circuits had anything approaching a monopoly, or even a dominant share, most being regional-based rather than nationwide. The biggest theaters were the most important. Super-theaters on Broadway and big city downtown areas could charge $2.20 admission compared to the national average of 28-35 cents. In 1927, 68 of these behemoths generated a total of $47 million ($790 million in today’s figures), the 5,450-seat Capitol in New York alone nabbing $2.7 million ($45 million).

The traditional method of releasing silent features depended on, effectively, withholding them. Each sector of exhibition obediently waited its turn while competition for new pictures between rival exhibitors served to stoke bids. The release system was littered with gaps of up to three weeks clearance, during which movies did not play at all as they worked their way down the ladder, this being the accepted method to ensure that the public still flocked to the more expensive houses rather than holding off till they turned up in a cheaper nabe, the waiting theaters prohibited from even advertising in advance such forthcoming attractions in local newspapers.

Studios also used hits as a way of enticing theater owners to commit to annual contracts. In theory, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles would get the biggest movies first. In reality, because big hits were allowed to run as long as first run theaters wanted them, it was virtually impossible to arrange the simultaneous release, on any scale, of a new feature. The long runs were permitted in part because of the grosses that could be achieved and in part because the amount of money taken in first run was the measure by which rental rates were set for further down the line.

A movie that ran for months at top prices (“a $2 hit”) in New York would attract higher rental prices in smaller cities than one lasting a week or two.  Some runs were exceptional: The Big Parade (1925) and Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ (1925) ran on Broadway for a year, Mare Nostrum (1926) and The Scarlet Letter (1926) for seven months, The Merry Widow (1925) for six months and La Boheme (1926) for four months.

Even had studios desired it, length of run, dictated by different exhibitor circumstances and public reaction in various cities, conspired to make simultaneous first run openings well nigh impossible. Fifteen cities constituted the peak of movie first run box office in 1926: Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Providence, San Francisco and Washington.

But it proved impossible throughout that year for a single picture to complete a run in all of these cities. The Big Parade opened in New York, Los Angeles and Washington on the same day, January 2, but in no other city in this list that year, its simultaneous opening therefore limited to just 20 per cent of first run in these major cities. Ben Hur also opened on January 2 in New York but did not reach Philadelphia, its only other port of call that year, until June. Aloma of the Seven Seas managed 80 per cent penetration, but it was a lengthy enterprise, beginning on May 22 in New York and ending on November 20 in Washington. The Sea Beast opened in only six cities within a four-month period.

So it was entirely feasible that, following the combined restraints imposed by both exhibitors and studios, The Jazz Singer may have taken as long as any of these features to traverse the country and still, within year of its premiere, not been seen in all the major cities.  In the first few post-premiere months, only three of the key fifteen cities showed it.

So a movie that was a sensation in New York remained a New York sensation only. There was nothing immediate, as film scholars have suggested, as regards the rest of the nation’s audiences and exhibitors.

However, Warner Brothers, using the prospect of immediate payback to entice theater owners to install sound, broke with tradition and unleashed an unprecedented release onslaught.

In so doing, the studio invented the modern wide release.

In March 1928 The Jazz Singer opened simultaneously in 235 theaters natonwide. But that was not all that was revolutionary. For a start, exhibitors had to contract to pay a percentage of the receipts, on a sliding scale from week one, rather than a flat rental. Secondly, the studio dictated the length of run, rather than the exhibitor, Warner Brothers demanding a minimum eight-week run. Thirdly, the studio expanded the initial day-and-date idea into second- and third-run bookings, triggering a series of simultaneous multiple releases in the nabes. After first runs were completed, large numbers of nabes took part in wider day-dating programs, in Philadelphia, for example, after twelve weeks in first run, twenty other houses throughout the city lined up for simultaneous wide release, a situation repeated across the country. Fourthly, those theaters way down the release chain that normally played a split week had to commit to a full weeks.

In one fell swoop, Warner Brothers challenged the existing order. Multiple release meant that studios would no longer be held to ransom by giant picture houses determining not just when a major movie played but, unintentionally perhaps, the restrictions that followed in its wake. By dictating minimum length of run, Warner Brothers took back control of “exclusive” engagements. Clearance stipulated that the theater at the top of the release hierarchy had exclusive rights to exhibition and could hold onto the movie for as long as it wished. Obviously, studios were not averse to this as the biggest theaters attracted the biggest audiences. But if a movie was a sensation, the studio could not cash in on media attention by yanking it from downtown and sending it out wider while public interest was at a peak.

With The Jazz Singer, Warner Brothers guaranteed exclusivity, but on its terms. A big city first run theater had to cede control over length of run in order to show the picture. On the other hand theaters all over America would have access to new movies in a way that, heretofore, had been virtually forbidden. The arrival of sound spurred studios to shorten release patterns and widen openings in order to reassure those installing the new equipment that it was going to be worthwhile and, also, that they would not have to wait ages to receive a return on their investment.

Simultaneous opening became the way forward both in first run and in nabes, the size of saturation varying enormously from those who topped The Jazz Singer theater count to those who came nowhere near, and not just for sound. In fact, The Jazz Singer saturation record barely lasted a month, beaten by new silent comedy Speedy starring Harold Lloyd at Easter in 250 theaters nationwide.

The main limitation to simultaneous opening was the shortage of prints. Studios and independents produced 800 pictures a year and the average life of a print was 59 showings (around 100 working days). Typically, an ordinary feature would require 150, increasing to 200-250 for studio “specials,” roadshows receiving 300-plus (although this included prints for overseas), so, annually, a studio might have upwards of 7,500 prints of new films in circulation. With prints costing 4 cents per foot, around $280 for a seven-reel movie, Hollywood’s annual expenditure was in the millions.

Sound necessitated an increase in prints. Availability rather than restricted access was key, so studios were forced to place sound pictures in those houses which could play them, and that incurred a faster play-off than before. But since relatively few cinemas were wired, movies appeared in silent and sound versions. For Two Lovers (1928) starring Ronald Colman only 55 of the 320 prints were specified as sound, a similar ratio for DeMille’s King of King.

By now, whether exhibitors were complicit or not, studios were committed to sound, having set aside $5 million for sound stages, although, in cautious contradiction, leasing equipment rather than buying it. For the 1928-1929 season Paramount scheduled up to 50 movies with synchronized sound, Warner Brothers 30, of which five (Lights of New York, The Desert Song, The Terror, Conquest and Home Towners) would be all-talkie, First National 31, and Universal nine. MGM and Columbia were slower to respond, MGM’s first talkie White Shadows in the South Seas not available till late summer 1928, Columbia’s talkie debut The Lone Wolf’s Daughter not ready until the following year

By summer 1928 only 400 theaters had switched to sound – barely four percent of the total – hardly suggesting a revolution had taken hold. In some areas, the availability of sound was negligible or non-existent, only five wired theaters in West Virginia, four in South Carolina, three in Maine, Utah and Nebraska, two in Louisiana, one in Delaware, Vermont and Wyoming, but none at all in New Hampshire or Nevada.  

Theaters which had managed the conversion encountered a dearth of new sound product. In an era when most theaters got through up to two hundred features a year, the bulk of what was on offer sound-wise was dominated by shorts comprising comic and dramatic monologues and dialogues or featuring bands, orchestras, and operatic or semi-operatic numbers. Talkie feature production was less straightforward than silent, considerable gaps between movies. It took Warner Brothers six months after Lights of New York to bring out another all-talking picture, The Terror, which hit Broadway as a two-a-day roadshow on August 15, 1928. 

The slow uptake from exhibitors was not just due to natural caution but fear about making the wrong choice. There was a baffling array of equipment to assist in the conversion to sound, ten versions of what were termed “sound picture devices” and nearly as many “synchronization devices.” Installation cost was substantial, $2,500 for a 2,000-seater for Qualitone, for example ‘Uncertainty, unrest, indecision’ choked the business. Cities like Memphis, Minnesota and Omaha and entire areas like the northwest and the Cornbelt simply refused to countenance sound.

The impact on the existing inventory was catastrophic. Exhibitors stopped renting new films, in what amounted to a “buying strike” in 1928 especially of companies which only made silents. The boycott affected all films and continued through 1929 as exhibitors were “now wary of signing up for product too far in advance lest revolutionary developments are in store again.’   

With booking paralysis threatening the industry, studios took coherent action. Warner Brothers focused on increased accessibility; ‘day-dating with Broadway’ became an integral element of Warner Brothers launches. In order to rouse theaters from their torpor, Hollywood took the unusual step of creating a generic campaign, promoting talkies to the public. ‘How to focus the attention of the public,’ was a tall order when there was ‘no precedent to fall back on.’

Studios realized theaters would be more susceptible to public pressure and in August 1928 Paramount promoted the concept of sound through “the greatest advertising campaign in the history of pictures” to the 100 million readers of 695 newspapers in 413 cities while a month later Warner Brothers launched a million-dollar advertising campaign promoting sound via 125 daily newspapers.

During 1929 other studios followed the Warner Brothers example of day-dating with Broadway and to find a way round the Broadway logjams, new movies were launched away from New York, Fox, for example, opening Sunnyside Up starring the popular duo of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell in Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis and Milwaukee long before it reached New York. United Artists’ Trespasser starring Gloria Swanson only found its way to New York after a string of bookings including Buffalo, Omaha, Atlanta, Detroit and Cincinnati. Paramount “pre-released” Close Harmony (‘Hear Charles Buddy Rogers and Nancy Carroll Sing and the Whole Cast Talk!’) in five cities, but not Chicago and New York.

Exasperated by exhibitor inertia regarding sound, which had threatened to throttle the burgeoning technology, and wishing a bigger share of the overall pie, studios had also embarked on a theater-buying spree, acquiring both first run theaters and chains of nabes, the “Big Six” studios now in control of 3,800 houses. 

But in 1929 Warner Brothers remained king of the wide release, setting a new simultaneous multiple release opening record, the 558 theaters involved in the launch of Queen of the Night Clubs ‘on or about March 16’ more than doubling the previous high-water mark. And it charged ahead with unprecedented numbers of simultaneous openings to satisfy demand (5,000 houses wired by August, 43 per cent using Vitaphone), maintain its position as the market leader in sound, build market share,  drive up its stock price, and to capitalize on profits from the exhibition sector now that the company had invested more in that field.

But it had taken a full two years since The Jazz Singer for the industry to reach a turning point. The schedules for 1929-1930 revealed that for the first time the production of talkies outweighed that of silents, 504 vs. 403. Such volumes would more than satisfy the needs of the average theater.

So, yes, the slowest recorded revolution in history. And it took another revolution in wide release to make it possible.

SOURCE: Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere, A History of the Hollywood Wide Release, 1913-2017 (McFarland, 2019) p11-21. There are over 100 references for these pages so I’m not going to print them all here. You can get them in the book if you so desire.

When Roadshow Didn’t Rule

When two pictures made in the Cinerama process – Custer of the West (1967) and Krakatoa East of Java (1968) – didn’t make it onto the U.S. roadshow circuit, the industry was in shock.

There were two reasons for the unexpected decision – distribution logjam and cash flow. For a start you needed deep pockets not just to launch a movie in roadshow but to keep it there bearing in mind the ongoing outlay in interest costs for the production and the longer advertising schedule. That is, if you could find enough available cinemas.

Although there was still a production shortage as far as the general cinema marketplace went, that was not the case for first run. By 1967, studios were not dependent on roadshow for hits. In 1966, only one roadshow featured in the box office top ten. In 1967, the number rose to three. But that still meant the vast majority of first run movie theaters never ran short of product, especially when, should all the regular roadshow houses be already taken, they might be called upon to host a roadshow for a month or two.

Some movies – The Blue Max (1966), for example – which had not been made with roadshow in mind, were launched in a handful of cinemas as roadshow for prestige purposes. Conversely, other movies, produced with the express aim of being released in the roadshow format, skipped that element of the distribution chain and went straight into general release. The Great Race (1965) was shown in hard-ticket only in the Pantages in Los Angeles, but first run general release elsewhere. In Harm’s Way (1965) lasted just one day in roadshow.

But neither had been made in Cinerama which was considered the bedrock of the advance-booking separate-performance high-ticket-priced roadshow. There were two problems with that format and that company. The first was that cinemas equipped to show Cinerama were far fewer than those who could accommodate roadshow, so if they were full to capacity with existing pictures, opportunities to open elsewhere were not only limited but undesirable.

The second was that while in the past major studios had lined up to use the Cinerama format for their movies – Warner Brothers for Battle of the Bulge (1965), MGM for Grand Prix (1966), for example – now Cinerama had decided the company was best served by it taking control of output rather than sharing potential profit with anyone else.

Rather than simply licensing its film-making and projection equipment to studios and cinemas, respectively, and taking a small percentage of picture grosses and a fee for every ticket sold, Cinerama embarked on a bolder strategy. It would turn into a major production outfit – the dozen movies in its first tranche included, as well as the two roadshows, Charly, Shalako, The High Commissioner/Nobody Runs Forever, Candy and Stiletto. It also aimed to virtually double the number of cinemas equipped to show Cinerama, so there would be no shortage of roadshow outlets for its most prestigious pictures productions, and set up its own global distribution system.

But since Cinerama no longer had alliances with major studios, and in fact was now hellbent on competing with them, it lost those studios’ relationships with the big roadshow cinemas in New York and Los Angeles. There were only two houses in New York equipped with Cinerama, and Warner owned one and MGM had an almost symbiotic partnership with the other – Loews. That meant no place initially for Custer of the West.

But there was another option. Open it overseas. Roadshows often played for longer in European capitals than they did in New York or Los Angeles and those cities were often inclined, when demand was at its highest, to switch a big first run house into a roadshow theater.

And there was precedent. MGM had opened How the West Was Won (1962) in the Casino Cinerama in London ahead of its Stateside roadshow release. The Cinerama western had cleaned up, record takings, a massive run into the bargain, all serving to heighten expectation across the Atlantic. So, Cinerama opened Custer of the West in that cinema with top seats costing $3.50 and separate performances (two a day, three at the weekend) and to initial public and critical success.

The much-touted “record” opening week disguised the fact that the only record it took down, and then only by $200, was that of How the West Was Won five years previously; Battle of the Bulge’s opening salvo of $41,608 remaining intact. In any case ticket sales soon tailed off and Cinerama had second thoughts about the cost and wisdom of opening it in roadshow in the U.S. especially when the lack of theaters would produce further delay.

So it took another strategic, possibly perilous, route in deciding to miss out New York and Los Angeles – and Boston and Chicago for that matter – from its initial roadshow roll-out. The assumption was that big box office elsewhere would soon have New York and LA houses queuing up. The film’s U.S. premiere took place in Dallas and Houston on January 24 and it managed another 15 roadshow bookings in the months following.

Except for a “big” $15,000 in Detroit, the other opening week results were so soft – “fairish” $8,500 in Cincinnati, “just okay” $7,000 in Kansas City, $4,000 in Portland which was less than the previous week’s run-of-the-mill picture – the studio called for a rethink. “Due to spotty out of town dates thus far it seems an unlikely bet for New York roadshowing,” opined Variety. And so it proved. Cinerama promoted its general release as “direct from reserved-seat engagements” but it fared little better, a “thin” $171,000 from 34 houses in its first New York salvo.

With none of its ambitious slate beyond Charly striking box office gold, Cinerama tore up the rule book for Krakatoa East of Java. In some respects it followed the launch template of Custer of the West with the movie being seen first overseas, world premiere this time in Japan, six months ahead of the May 1969 U.S. opening. But the London launch, at the Astoria – where it ran for nearly six months – came after, on July 31, not before.

But there was clearly an unwillingness to risk all in roadshow. So, Cinerama came up with a clever compromise. While not strictly speaking entering roadshow in that it abandoned advance booking and high ticket prices, it stuck to separate performances but, to compensate for potential loss in box office receipts, operated on four performances daily rather than two. Cinerama called this “scheduled performances” and it was somewhere between roadshow and general release. But it was initially screened in Cinerama in those houses equipped with the projection equipment and only after those semi-hard-ticket bookings were complete did it enter general release.

Even without roadshow, the movie exploded onto screens on opening weeks – a “big” $60,000 in New York (and $55,000 in the second week), a record-breaking $31,764 (and $36,345 in week three) at the Pacific Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, a “giant” $50,000 in Cleveland, “hotsy” in Detroit with $36,000, $22,000 in Denver and a “mighty” $18,000 in Washington.

Between the Dome (a genuine roadshow with 14 performances a week) in Los Angeles and the Broadway Cinerama (the hybrid with double the performances per week) in New York it grossed $1.2 million. Overall, the various hard-ticket strands kept the movie on screens for most of the summer and into the autumn before a general release targeted for Thanksgiving and Xmas kept up the box office heat.

The studio put an unusually hefty marketing push behind the general release. Having gone round the houses, literally, once with promotional ideas, the company rejigged the best ideas and brought in new suggestions. But, basically, the word to new exhibitors was to learn from successful strategies used in the semi-hard-ticket release. “Rather than rest on its laurels,” the studio packaged the best ideas into a six-page A4 advert and stuck in in Box Office magazine. It knew what worked and just wanted to repeat and expand the process.

One of the marketing coups for the New York launch had been a giant outdoor sign in Times Square, at 265ft long and 62ft high the largest ever designed. The film’s artwork employed in this fashion attracted the attention of thousands of passers-by and served as an example of how the marketing material could work, even if on a smaller scale.

Exhibitors were instructed to target department or chain stores. The launch had found ready cooperation not just from Macy’s but discount store White Front, specially chosen to promote the “price reduction” idea, of a big movie at low prices. It was standard practice for roadshows going into general release to be advertised as “now at regular prices” but the idea of harnessing the mindset of a discount chain, associated with low prices, set a precedent.

There were the obvious routes – tie-ups with record stores and bookshops for the soundtrack and the Signet paperback – but the studio had also made available a reprint of an article on the Krakatoa eruption from Reader’s Digest magazine in 1946, and provided a Teacher’s Guide for schools. Educational avenues were heavily explored, and what teacher would not have an eager audience of young kids to be taught a lesson about volcanoes.

Where the semi-hard-ticket launch had secured the presence of Miss Java, it was suggested that local exhibitors should try and find someone of Indonesian origin, perhaps an exchange student at a local college, to participate in the local screenings. Pearls and balloons, intricate parts of the movie’s narrative, had been used in a big way for the launch, but still lent themselves to simpler exploitation, fake pearls could be given away and colorful balloons if a weather balloon could not be located nearby. The extra effort that went into the general release paid off.

The New York showcase popped a “smash” $430,000 from 31 houses. The company reissued Krakatoa East of Java and Custer of the West in a giant “East Meets West” double bill in 1971 in advance of the television prmeiere of the former two years later.

Overall, while Custer of the West was considered a flop in the U.S., Krakatoa East of Java qualified as a hit of modest proportions, and both movies did well globally. But by 1969, setting aside the $18 million it cost to turn Cinerama into a genuine studio with its own distribution arm, the company had turned a financial corner, and in 1970 income had soared to $46 million – up from $12 million – and there was at last a profit ($3.2 million) instead of a loss ($660,000).

Exactly how much Custer of the West and Krakatoa East of Java contributed to the overall turnaround is impossible to determine because for some arcane reason the studio refused to reveal rental figures even though it had been happy to supply them for other movies which had contributed to the uplift such as Candy, Charly and The Killing of Sister George.

Most film historians point to the flop of several big-budget pictures as the reason for the demise of the roadshow, but just as likely was the move by Cinerama to shift away from the roadshow format in favor of its hybrid, which retained some of the “special event” aspects of the roadshow release while pushing ahead on the more commercial approach of lower prices matched by more daily performances, effectively attempting to bring in revenue at a faster speed, which would be the determined aim of studios in the following decade. The Godfather (1972) might be considered the classic imitator.

SOURCES: Kim R. Holston, Movie Roadshows, A History and Filmography of Reserved-Seat Limited Showings 1911-1973 (McFarland, 2013) p266-267; “Custer Pulls a Record $33,245 in London Bow,” Variety, November 22, 1967, p13; “Cinerama Sanguine on Custer After London; Gets U.S. Roadshowing,” Variety, November 22, 1967, p13; “New York Sound Track,” Variety, February 14, 1968, p18; “N.Y. Roadshow Problem for This & Next Season with Theater Map Torn Apart,” Variety, March 29, 1968, p5;  Advert, Box Office, April 29, 1968, p1;  “Krakatoa – 3-Site Premiere in Tokyo,” Box Office, January 20, 1969, pE1; “Krakatoa in Paris,” Variety, January 29, 1969, p4; Advert, Variety, May 21, 1969, p35; Advert, Variety, June 11, 1969, p31; “Krakatoa Shuns Roadshow,” Variety, July 9, 1969, p15; “Krakatoa London Bow,” Variety, July 2, 1969, p34; “Picture Grosses,” Variety, July 2-16, 1969; “General Release Set for CRC’s Krakatoa,” Box Office, November 3, 1969, p9; “Merchandising The Picture, ” Box Office, November 17, 1969, p13-18; “New York Showcases,” Variety, December 3, 1969, p9; “West End,” Kine Weekly, January 3, 1970, p9;“Cinerama’s Big Year,” Variety, March 25, 1970, p4.

Selling Boris Karloff, Or At Least Trying To: Pressbook for “The Sorcerers” (1967)

Exhibitors measured a movie’s commercial potential in large part by the size and shape of the Pressbook. There was a correlation between a studio’s marketing budget and box office expectation.

This was the era of the 16-page A3 (twice size of a sheet of A4 paper) Pressbook/Campaign Manual that would contain what a cinema manager required to make the most of the picture through newspaper exploitation. This included snippets that would be passed on as nuggets for the editor of the entertainment section – incidents that occurred on set, details of location, hitherto unknown facts about the stars, interesting quotes – and for the newspaper’s non-editorial section that came in the form of a series of  different advertisements, six or seven not unusual.

These adverts were core to what you might see in your local newspaper. The cinema manager simply cut out the preferred size of advert – they were offered a huge range of sizes that often took up to half the Pressbook – and handed that in to the newspaper which duly, with cinema name attached, used it to make up the printed ad.

The point of the A3 Pressbook was to accommodate ads that size (11.7 x 16.5 inches / 297 x 420mm) and encourage the cinema manager to consider paying for such a hefty space in a newspaper. Beginning with the giant size indicated studio confidence, which, it hoped, the cinema manager would match. Of course, should he or she not, then there was a wealth of smaller-sized ads – which might themselves start at roughly A4  (8.3 x 11.7 inches / 210 x 297mm) that the cinema manager might feel more appropriate to the picture house’s marketing budget.

The various ads accommodated a number of different taglines and images, so that a cinema manager could choose the best one for targeting their specific audience – most commonly, for example. an action picture might be sold on the love interest.

The Sorcerers was released in the U.S. by Allied Artists. Once a big name, producing Friendly Persuasion in 1956, it had now fallen on harder times and largely reverting to its Monogram origins except for a financial boost from the unexpected success of the French-made A Man and a Woman (1966). Whatever imapct that had on Allied’s coffers did not translate into expenditure on the Pressbook for The Sorcerers. Cinema mangers would not have been filled with any great confidence. In size and in the advertisement material it did not shout box office winner.

This is an ad from the British campaign which showed more originality than in the U.S.

The Pressbook was 8-pages A4, of which more than half was advertisements, one full-page A4. But there was only, effectively, one ad, though presented over five pages in twelve different sizes, from the aforementioned A4 down to what would be little more than a slug, one inch running the width of one newspaper column (about two inches).

Boris Karloff’s brooding features, intercut with a man knifing a woman, dominate the advert. There is a tagline: “He turns them on…he turns them off…to live…love…die or KILL!” At the foot of the ad is a montage of young things, dancing, kissing, a girl in backless dress the height of the titillation portrayed. The rest of the near-dozen adverts are all exactly the same, with, as the adverts grow smaller, bits of the main ad dropped out.

The problem with marketing any film starring Boris Karloff was the actor himself. Although a legendary name in movies thanks to Frankenstein, that career-making role had been three decades before and anyone who had seen it in the 1960s had done so on television where it was shorn of a lot of its power. Karloff had only intermittently popped up in horror movies during the 1960s, most recently in Die, Monster, Die (1965).

Director Michael reeves (left) with Tony Tenser of Tigon and Karloff.

Karloff was not, to put it mildly, a major marquee attraction. And part of the reason was his determination not to be typecast. So, in the 1940s and 1950s he was more likely to be seen on stage, in Arsenic and Old Lace or The Lark, for example, or on television. He only made eight movies during the 1950s.

There had been some kind of horror comeback in 1963 with The Raven, The Terror, Black Sabbath and The Comedy of Terrors, but since then movie appearances had been sparse. And, of course, for an actor of his age, there was nothing new to say, although perhaps just to remind people that he had been born William Henry Pratt in England.

None of the other performers were remotely well-known. Ian Ogilvy had supporting roles in She Beast (1966) and Stranger in the House / Cop-Out (1967). Elizabeth Ercy had small parts in Doctor in Clover / Carnaby M.D. (1966) and Fathom (1967). Each was given an one-eighth page biography. Despite directing She Beast, Michael Reeves wasn’t mentioned at all.

The company you keep. Tigon’s line-up for 1967.

So you get the distinct impression from the Pressbook that it’s Karloff or nothing and since the actor, as noted, was hardly a major player, nobody was going to much trouble to sell the picture.

The Pressbooks I’ve presented in previous features in the Blog have all had considerably more going for them, but this was the downside of the movie business. When there wasn’t much to sell, the distributor wasn’t going to waste his money trying to achieve the impossible.

The Pressbook, printed in 1967, did not appear to achieve any success. The movie did not win a single first run or showcase booking in any of the major cities whose box office was reported by Variety magazine. However, in July 1968, the film was awarded the Grand Prix at the Trieste Sci Fi Festival, with Elizabeth Ercy named Best Actress. That did not appear to brighten the movie’s prospects.

But in 1969, it turned up at the bottom of two horror triple bills. In Boston in first run at the Center it grossed $7,000 (Variety, February 19, 1969, p8) supporting Island of the Doomed (1967) and Castle of Evil (1966). In Los Angeles in a Karloff triple, it was topped in the billing by The Comedy of Terrors and The Raven, earning a decent $110,000 from 12 houses. (Variety, April 30, 1969, p8), it was top-billed in first run in Chicago taking in a “neat” $5,500 at the Monroe (Variety, October 15, 1969, p8).

But it’s possible these few bookings and doubtless others on the drive-in circuits and in smaller towns might still have helped turn a profit on the picture since it only cost $210,000 to make in the first place.

Behind the Scenes: “The Comedians” (1967)

Richard Burton was at his box office peak. From Cleopatra (1963) through The VIPs (1963), Becket (1964), The Night of the Iguana (1964), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Sandpiper (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967) he had enjoyed massive box office success and notched up  three Oscar nominations. He was being pursued for Camelot (1967) – the part he played on Broadway – and himself pursued the rights to Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer. But out of admiration for novelist Graham Greene he accepted, sight unseen, the leading role in The Comedians.

Director Peter Glenville, better known at the time as a stage director, owed his career to the two male principals. Alec Guinness had backed him for his debut The Prisoner (1955) and starred in his latest film, the farce Hotel Paradiso (1966). Burton had been one of his two incendiary stars of Becket (1964), a box office smash, as a consequence of which the director signed a four-picture deal with MGM. All three of his previous films had begun life as plays directed by Glenville.

Before the picture could get off the ground it faced a potential legal minefield from producer George Glass. He owned the rights to a short story The Prisoner, written by screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, 1959) and published in the January 1952 edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. It had since been turned into a television play directed by john Frankenheimer for the Playhouse 90 series in February 1957. Glass argued the new picture would infringe his copyright.

Although without doubt Taylor was the bigger box office star, the better remunerated  and the more acclaimed, at least by Oscar standards (two wins to his five nominations), in their personal life the roles were reversed. “There seems little doubt,” wrote Burton biographer Melvyn Bragg, “that although he was drawn into what he saw as the mystery and fun of Elizabeth he was the dominating partner. She soothed him. She sought him in bars.” Burton himself said, “We never had any question of who was boss. She always realised I was to run the show.”

Whether that was the reason she took what was no more than a supporting role in The Comedians at half her usual salary (for the first time Burton on $750,000 versus her $500,000 was the financial top dog) is unclear, but she certainly, as was attested on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, did not like to leave him footloose and fancy free on a film set where he could indulge his liking for liquor and pretty women. On her previous film, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) “she resented playing second fiddle” to Marlon Brando, and might have preferred making a picture where she regained a sense of her own importance, but instead she accepted a role that was not up to her usual high standard.

Director Peter Glenville (Becket) had not particularly wanted Taylor for the role, possibly feeling she might over-balance the project. It would be the couple’s seventh movie together, a pairing that was being discussed in the same hushed tones as the legendary Tracy-Hepburn. Alec Guinness was somewhat apprehensive about the film. Calls he had made to the couple’s suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London had gone unanswered and gifts returned. Burton was mortified. It turned out his staff had been too protective of their employer.

Shooting began in January 1967 before the novel was published. Although producers often purchased books while still in galley stage, they generally preferred the book to have acquired a substantial readership before embarking on a costly movie investment. However, Graham Greene could fairly lay claim to being the greatest living English writer and his involvement appeared to add gravitas to the project, although it would be fair to say that none of the translations of his works into movies had enjoyed anything like the success of The Third Man (1949). He had not written for the screen since Our Man in Havana (1960), also starring Guinness.

Unusually for a novelist, he had acquired a reputation for setting his stories in trouble spots. Often, he would take on a journalistic assignment from the likes of the British Sunday Times to investigate conditions in countries undergoing brutal change. His literary reputation often gave him access to the inner sanctum from which an ordinary reporter would have been barred. The author had adored Haiti before the Duvalier takeover and hated that Papa Doc ruled by terror, backed by the dreaded Tonton Macoutes.  The Comedians was a determinedly political novel, the author hoping his expose of an “unique evil” might put pressure on the dictator.

Greene described Haiti as a “a tormented little country” and had feared for his life on his last visit. The author told an Italian journalist that he had clearly got under Duvalier’s skin. “A writer is not so powerless as he usually feels,” he once wrote, “and a pen, as well as a silver bullet, can draw blood.”  Martha (the Elizabeth Taylor character) was based on a woman the author had known in Martinique who ran a hotel and had a son.

Initially, Glenville had envisaged making the film in Haiti, where the book was set, but, given the author had taken careful aim at country it was a concern that the dictator might take revenge on stars who had the audacity to film in his own backyard. Dahomey, in West Africa, about the size of Cuba, was its replacement.

When accidents plagued the shoot, and since voodoo was a story element, rumors spread that Duvalier had ordered witch doctors to curse the production. “Apparently voodoo spells cannot travel over water,” recollected Guinness, “and have to be operated at hand…(but) on the first day of filming one of the unit stumbled on the beach, possibly from a heart attack, and drowned in a foot of water before anybody could assist him. Several people complained of difficulty in breathing, suffering from acute headaches and deep depression; one or two had to be sent home….there was something a little sinister in the atmosphere.” Guinness, in conversation with the French Consul, was informed the country was still inhabited by cannibals, a threat he took seriously enough to warn actor Paul Ford’s wife not to sit around alone on her porch, but which was later discounted by the local archbishop as the kind of joke a foreigner would too easily fall for

Guinness also saved the director from drowning. Not realizing how treacherous the sea, with an infamous undertow, could be, Glenville had gone for a swim. Reading on the beach nearby, Guinness heard him calling for help and had to drag him to safety. Guinness suffered from a mysterious rash for four days.

Of course, Burton and Taylor were treated like royalty, They were met by President Soglo and given use of the presidential compound. And it was also a humbling experience. Washing was strung along lines in the presidential courtyard, the Queen’s closet was filled with “a perfectly ordinary rack of shoes.” Burton had mixed feelings, commenting in his diary, about the President: “his clothes were ill-made…he obviously likes women and was forever taking E (Taylor) by the arm…We both found the experience oddly moving. Here was this huge, mosaiced palace, only completed three years ago, and outside the immense Salle de Reception, capable of receiving 3,000 people at one time, there was washing on the line.”

But this treatment did not extend everywhere, and for the better. Most people in Dahomey had never heard of the couple so they were able to dine out without harassment. “Glenville noticed that the lack of outside stress helped them relax in front of the camera.”

But the heat was intolerable, temperatures some days reaching 110 degrees, hitting 138 degrees under movie lights. This resulted in no one dallying over takes. The situation was exacerbated by Burton’s drinking. “I hardly find him the same person,” commented Guinness, recalling the times the pair had occasionally spent together in the late 1940s when he was by far the bigger star. “Drink has taken a bit of a toll.” Breakfast for Burton on the first day of shooting was a Bloody Mary. On one occasion Burton was so inebriated he failed to turn up for a presidential dinner in their honor in front of two hundred guests.  He was an ugly drunk and his wife bore the brunt of it. Being top dog financially and in terms of screen credit did not appear to bring him the solace he required.

The Burtons’ extensive entourage recruited an additional member with a specific skill. Photographer Gianni Bozzachi was “considered the number one re-toucher in Italy,” his job solely to ensure that any photographs of Taylor sent to the press were “as beautiful as humanly possible.” He became the couple’s official photographer, often taking candid pictures unobtrusively.

Bozzachi believed Taylor more beautiful in person – her left and right profiles were equally symmetrical, a rare physical gift –  than on camera and was attempting to capture that inner beauty. He said, “without make-up she glows. There’s a sensuality always present.” But he also exuded a sensuality that disturbed Burton. That a tall curly-haired handsome young man was showering attention on his wife made Burton jealous.

Burton and Alec Guinness respected each other’s talent. In one four-minute scene where Guinness took center stage and Burton was simply listening, Guinness commented, “That was the greatest support I’ve had from an actor in my life.”

Burton was not particularly enamored of Dahomey. Although he retained a “certain amount of nostalgia” for the country, he also referred to the “dangerous sea,” the arrogance of the Americans, the “mad palace, the President and his dowdy provincial wife.” But then Burton in his diaries was particularly waspish.  Guinness was even more forthright. “I was glad to leave Dahomey. I couldn’t help feeling it was sinister…ideas of voodoo are never absent from one’s mind.” The final stages of filming were completed in Nice.

In the wake of the violence in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and, more especially, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which stirred up huge controversy, not least against the Production Code which had passed both films, MPAA president Jack Valenti took against the violence in the film and persuaded Glenville to “mute” one particularly bloody scene.

This proved a difficult film to market outside of the star names and the adaptation of a literary bestseller. However, Duvalier inadvertently helped, launching a furious tirade in the press against the picture, threatening legal action against what he termed “inflammatory libel” and exciting the U.S. media so much it triggered a four-part television series. There was a major article in Look magazine which had sent a reporter and photographers to the set in Dahomey. And the marketing team pulled off something of a coup in persuading the Museum of Modern Art in New York for the first time to devote a complete exhibition to a movie.

Despite the top-heavy English cast, the movie premiered in New York at the Coronet where it ran concurrently at the DeMille. Although it opened in the same week as Cool Hand Luke, it trailed the Paul Newman prison drama at the box office, taking $64,000 from two cinemas compared to $92,000, also from a pair. But that was still deemed a good result and initial U.S. first run bookings were brisk – the box office termed “socko” and “boffo.”

Post-production MGM had considered turning it into a roadshow for the U.S. market but decided against it. However, for the later British launch, in January 1968,  it was blown up into 70mm and presented as roadshow in London’s West End at the Casino Cinerama and in various countries around the world. The American version, running at 156 minutes,  was edited by nine minutes though the programme was effectively lengthened to accommodate the necessary roadshow intermission.

Though named by three critics as one of the top ten films of the year, the movie received no Oscar nominations. It proved to be Glenville’s last film although he lived for another 30 years.

SOURCES: Chris Williams (editor), The Richard Burton Diaries (Yale University Press, 2012) p130-131, 152-157; Melvyn Bragg, Rich, The Life of Richard Burton (Hodder and Stoughton, 1988) p223, 231-232, 236-237; Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, Furious Love, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, The Marriage of the Century (JR Books paperback, 2011) p196-204; William J. Mann, How to Be a Movie Star, Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood (Faber and Faber, 2009) p378-379; Alec Guinness, Blessings in Disguise (Hamish Hamilton, 1985) p209-210; Leopold Duran, Graham Greene, Friend and Brother (Harper Collins, 1994) p153, 238, 258; “Burton-Guinness Teamed,” Kine Weekly, September 8, 1966, p4; “Burton-Guinness Teamed,” Box Office, September 16, 1966, p4; “George Glass Protests Metro’s Comedians Treads on his Teleplay,” Variety, October 26, 1966, p5; “Elizabeth Taylor to Co-Star in Comedians for MGM,” Box Office, October 10, 1966, p7; “Comedians Looms as Metro Roadshow,” Variety, April 12, 1967, p26; “Plan Comedians Premiere,” Box Office, September 11, 1967, pE3; “Urge Films Shun Shock’n’Violence for Own Sake,” Variety, October 25, 1967, p1; “Museum to Devote Entire Exhibit to Comedians,” Box Office, October 30, 1967, pE7; “Haiti Protests Showing of Comedians,” Box Office, November 6, 1967, pE4; “Comedians on Roadshow at London Coliseum,” Variety, January 3, 1967, p5; “Year-End Best Picks,” Variety, January 10, 1968, p8.

Behind the Scenes: “Circus World / The Magnificent Showman” (1964)

For John Wayne it was the best of deals and the worst of deals. He had signed a six-picture seven-year contract with Paramount. On the plus side the studio paid the entire amount  upfront, wiping out the accumulated debts from the debacle of The Alamo (1960). On the debit side, he received only $500,000 per picture, well below his standard price of $750,000. In fact, Paramount could recoup some of its expense by hiring him out at his previous going rate.

Wayne was coming off hits McLintock (1963), Hatari! (1962) and How the West Was Won (1962) but other movies The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Donovan’s Reef (1963) – the first in the multi-picture deal – had punctured a hole in his supposed box office supremacy. But for maverick producer Samuel Bronston (El Cid, 1961), getting his hands on a star of the magnitude of Wayne was a coup. Originally entitled Those Were the Days, the title switched to the more appealing Circus World.

Bronston was a new-style producer. Apart from a $2.5 million injection by Paramount he  financed his pictures by country-by-country advances, and backed by DuPont, hardly the first big company to be seduced by the prospect of becoming a big Hollywood player. Distributors who advanced money in this fashion made hay if the film hit the bull’s eye, but if it flopped they didn’t get their money back. And a flop made it more difficult for an independent producer to raise the dough for his next picture. So Wayne’s involvement was viewed as a guarantee.

Nicholas Ray (King of Kings, 1961) was initially hired to direct followed by Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946), also made a Bronston partner, who tried to sabotage the script, planning only to shoot the sections he had rewritten. Bernard Gordon (55 Days at Peking, 1963) was credited with the original idea, but when Wayne came on board he brought with him James Edward Grant (The Commancheros, 1961).

Grant was only tempted by the promise of a three-picture deal. The tussle ended with Capra evicted at a cost of $150,000 and Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, 1960) at the helm. Hathaway instigated a week of rewrites with Ben Hecht (Spellbound, 1945) before settling down to more serious work with Grant.

Initial casting envisaged Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) in the role of Wayne’s partner and would-be lover of Cardinale, but he took the job without reading the script and on realizing it was little more than male romantic lead he bowed out. David Niven (55 Days at Peking, 1963) was initially signed as Wayne’s old buddy Cap but he, too, quit over the script. (Wayne and Taylor got on very well and should have teamed up for The War Wagon, 1967, until Kirk Douglas muscled his way in, later doing so for The Train Robbers, 1973. )

Their replacements John Smith (who had made his debut in Wayne picture The High and the Mighty, 1954) and the veteran Lloyd Nolan were hardly in the same box office league, but shaved cash off the budget.

A bigger concern than hiring a supporting cast was the circus. Bronston recruited famed European outfit Althoff Circus, whose 400 performers ensured the ringside element was authentic. For further realism Bronston added Bob Dover from Ringling Bros. There was no need for specialist horses, Bronston already having 125 trained from The Fall of the Roman Empire to pull circus wagons and for bareback riders.

The entire circus had to be transported by rail on 51 freight cars through the Brenner Pass to Germany and via Switzerland and France to Spain, halting at the Spanish border to unload the whole shebang onto a different train because the gauges didn’t match.

For the picture’s most spectacular scene, the capsizing of the ship transporting the circus, Bronston bought the 250ft long S.S. Cabo Huertas which was heading for the breaker’s yard. Repainted, decorated with circus posters and renamed S.S. Circus Maximus it was all set for a sinking overseen by special effects expert Alex Weldon (El Cid, 1961).

Three hundred tons of water were pumped into the half of the hold furthest away from the dock. The additional weight of 600 extras was enough to flip the ship on its side. Four 50-ton steam winches with steel cables kept the ship upright until it was time for action.

Female extras who were going to end up in the drink were fitted with corsets made of cork while the men wore cork belts hidden under their costumes. The Spanish Coast Guard cleared the harbor of debris and a local fleet of boats, just out of camera view, stood by for rescue. Seven divers patrolled the harbor bottom in case the cork failed to keep actors and extras afloat. Three sets of costumes were created for each participant so they would be kept dry as long as necessary.

Hathaway completed the scene without a single injury. He called it “the greatest job of its kind I have ever been involved in.” Bronston, who was as much a detail man as Cecil B. DeMille, ensured the band played instruments from the period

The picture went in front of the camera in September 1963 with Wayne due to end his commitment on December 18. But severe flooding in Spain knocked the movie off schedule and it went way over budget, running on until March 1964, the finishing touches added in London, the budget hitting $9 million.

Rita Hayworth, who hadn’t made a picture in two years, proved a handful, usually late on set, committing the cardinal sin of not learning her lines and, probably as worse, being rude to everyone

At  just 135 minutes long, Circus World  wasn’t originally envisaged as a roadshow until Cinerama put an estimated $2.5 million into the project, which defrayed the costs. By the time that partnership was announced, it was too late to shoot it in the Cinerama process. The 35mm Super Technirama footage was blown up to 70mm for showing in 60 U.S. theaters boasting the iconic Cinerama curved screens. Everything in Cinerama at that point was roadshow. And they had two more projects lined up with Bronston, Vittorio De Sica’s Paris 1900 and Jack Cardiff’s Brave New World, neither of which were made. Bronston also had another two movies in preparation with Paramount: The Nightrunners of Bengal to be directed by Richard Fleischer and Suez, neither made either.

Roadshow suited Paramount which had not used that method of premium release since The Ten Commandments (1956). In 1963 it had set up a roadshow department to handle the forthcoming Becket (1964) and The Fall of the Roman Empire, which were proper roadshow length of, respectively, nearly 150 minutes and over three hours. But, initially, Circus World did not fall into the roadshow category as far as Paramount was concerned. Only the arrival of Cinerama as an investor made it imperative.

To avoid a title clash with the ultra-successful It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), British distributor Rank changed the title to The Magnificent Showman. That alteration did little to improve its box office, opening at London’s Coliseum for a “NSG” (not-so-good in Variety parlance) $11,200, not much more than The Fall of the Roman Empire in its 17th week, How the West Was Won (90th week) and Cleopatra (51st). Nonetheless it ran there for seven months, followed by a mass general release in the U.K. with a record number of prints. In the U.S., on the eve of general release in April 1965, Paramount considered a title change to Wild Across the World and a switch of marketing emphasis to John Wayne and action.

Audiences didn’t bite, certainly not enough to recoup the budget, and far from enough to prevent Bronston’s operation sliding into liquidation.

SOURCES:  Scott Eyman, John Wayne, The Life and Legend (Simon & Schuster, 2014) p379-385; Mel Martin, The Magnificent Showman (Bear Manor Media, 2007), p153-168; Sheldon Hall, Introduction to Circus World, Bradford Widescreen Festival, 2022; “Rank To distribute New Bronston Pic,” Variety, September 26, 1962, p15; “Althoff Circus Logistics for Bronston’s Film,” Variety, September 25, 1963, p4;“New Roadshow Dept at Paramount,” Variety, November 13, 1963, p3; “Bronston and Paramount in 4-Picture Deal,” Box Office, December 9, 1963, p7; “Circus World Filming in London,” Box Office, February 17, 1964, p14; “Bronston’s Circus Goes Cinerama,” Variety, February 19, 1964, p4; “Bronston-Cinerama Unite on 2 Films,” Box Office, February 24, 1964, p5; “Special Mass Release for Showman,” Kine Weekly, May 28, 1964, p3; “Paramount Retains Circus World Title,” February 24, 1965, p3.

Behind the Scenes: “A Swingin’ Summer” (1965)

Might be a stretch to imagine A Swingin’ Summer has anything of note to add to the momentous cinematic history of the decade except for it falling into a booming phenomenon – the actor-producer. John Wayne (The Alamo, 1960), Paul Newman (Rachel, Rachel, 1968), Jack Lemmon (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) and Kirk Douglas (Lonely Are the Brave, 1962) led the way in actors taking complete control of their careers and putting together the movies they wanted to make rather than pitching up as hired hands.

Dale Robertson was an unexpected entrant into the hyphenate business, never having achieved the marquee clout of others, best known for string of B-westerns and the television series Tales of Wells Fargo (1957-1962). Television could be lucrative, especially if you were the star of a long-running show, but the longer you worked on the small screen the more you jeopardised the continuation of a big screen career. Law of the Lawless (1964) was his first movie for six years.

Advert in “Variety” heralding the arrival of Dale Robertson’s new business.

But Dale took an unusual approach to the production business, planning even more control than his predecessors, by setting up a distribution company, United Screen Arts (“USA” a useful acronym”). He had a simple credo, the “clean family film” seen as niche market worth exploiting at a time when only Disney paid it any continuous attention and when Hollywood stood accused of eroding family values with salacious product.

He had teamed up with Earl Collins, intending to release a dozen pictures a year, claiming their operation would be “the salvation of the independent producer.” On top of that, they spent $200,000 acquiring for U.S. television syndication rights to 39 foreign films starring the likes of Elke Sommer and Bebe Loncar.  There was talk of The Redeemer, a low-budget rival to The Greatest Story Ever Told, of handling British film The Quare Fellow and Tom Laughlin’s debut The Young Sinner which had been languishing in distribution limbo for four years.

But the company’s first move was, as trumpeted, into the family market, straight into the lion’s den with The Man from Button Willow (1965), an animated feature, Robertson lending his voice to the main character. And while the family market could offer substantial returns as Mary Poppins (1964) had proved, there was an even more attractive subgenre awaiting exploitation: the teen market.

Your face looks familiar – Dale Robertson with “billboard girl” Raquel Welch in tv show “Hollywood Palace.”

It was estimated that U.S. teenagers had $11 billion in pocket money to spend on records, clothes and movies. Teenagers assumed to have outgrown the Disney animated features were too young to be permitted entrance to more racy fare. But the Britpop explosion, headlined by The Beatles, had emphasised this market’s buying power.

From just a handful of pictures targeting the older young, there were now close on 20 features heading its way, split almost evenly between beach movies and those featuring pop stars – The Dave Clark Five, The Mersey Beats among other British exports along with Elvis Presley – or movies with little attempt at narrative, no more than a “filmed variety show with little variety.”

These movies exhibited acceptable anomalies, one of which was that the pop stars playing the lead roles retained their own first names in order “to speed up and simplify teener identification with their roles.” Remove parents and the threat of a morals clause, and it was a fresh approach to sexuality, and with nudity never an option well within the Production Code definitions of harmless fun.

AIP had successfully segued from its Edgar Allan Poe line of horror movies to beach pictures. Beach Party (1963), with over 10,000 bookings so far, had kick-started the mini-genre, and another half-dozen AIP offerings had entered the movie food chain. Along the way it made stars of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello who acted as a junior version of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, bedroom shenanigans reimagined as more innocent beach shenanigans, and instead of being dressed to kill the main characters were as undressed as much as possible, bikinis and shorts the order of the day.

Dale Robertson set out to tap into this market, A Swinging Summer “custom-tailored for the vast teenage audience.” USA lacked the $500,000-$700,000 budget of AIP which permitted the presence of older stars like Dorothy Malone, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre. USA’s aim was, effectively, a C-picture with sunshine and music. Record companies were happy for screen exposure for their artists, so guest spots, which might otherwise have stopped the narrative dead in its tracks, turned into highlights.

With a no-name cast – Robertson knew Raquel Welch from television variety show Hollywood Palace – and a simple location at Lake Arrowhead in California, the movie was quickly filmed in summer 1964 but held back a year. USA managed tie-ups with Suzuki and Yamaha motorbikes, the former promising a free ride to anyone brandishing a ticket stub, and with record company Moonglow, which offered prizes of the latest album by The Righteous Brothers. A press conference and screening was held for 300 high school newspaper editors and Robertson managed to put together a nationwide tour with some of the participants, although its biggest piece of publicity came from a woman who got her finger stuck in the spoke of a steering wheel during a drive-in screening in Milwaukee.

A few years before or a few years after, A Swingin’ Summer would have been support material, speedily in and out of theaters. But riding a short-lived zeitgeist and taking advantage of the unexpected rise in popularity of Raquel Welch it did much better.

There was a saturation release in 71 houses in North Carolina, “impressive grosses” at the Pacific Drive-In circuit, topped by a record-breaking opening in the Crest Theater in Bakersfield, a good $7,500 at the Twin Drive-In in Cincinnati, a very healthy $28,000 in a New Orleans break, and $26,500 from five cinemas in Kansas City. First-run proved hard to come by but it still snapped up $7,500 at the 2,432-seat Fox in Denver. Supporting features included Major Dundee and Wild in the Country.

There were sightings through 1967, no doubt on account of Raquel Welch’s growing popularity. And if it wasn’t a shoo-in for big city center palaces, it found a hearty welcome in smaller operations in small towns. “The best beach picture ever played,” was the opinion of the Fayette Theater in Fayetteville while at the New Theater in Arkansas it was considered “one of the smaller pictures” that outgrossed bigger-budgeted efforts.

But this was a short-lived phenomenon, and within a few years a beach picture would be a rawer affair like The Sweet Ride (1968) and music would have segued from pop into drugs and rock’n’roll.

Dale Robertson’s foray into production was equally short-lived, moving back into television and developing a night club act. The beach genre generated not one long-term talent outside of Raquel Welch.

SOURCES: “Swingin’ Summer Release To United Screen Arts,” Box Office, February 22, 1965, p10; “Advert,” Variety, February 24, 1965, p21; “Teenagers And Their Pocket Money, A Film Market Unto Themselves,” Variety, March 10, 1965, p4; “Kansas City,” Box Office, May 31, 1965, pC4; “Dale Robertson’s Distribution Credo,” Variety, June 16, 1965, p11; “A Swingin’ Film,” Box Office, June 27, 1965, pNC2; “USA’s Summer Starts Strong in Bakersfield,” Box Office, June 27, 1965, pW5; “Swingin’ Summer Set for Pacific Drive-ins,” Box Office, August 9, 1965, pW5;  “Honolulu,” Box Office, September 13, 1965, pW4; “USA’s Swingin’ Summer Opens in 71 NC Dates,” Box Office, September 20, 1965, pSE4; “USA Sets Record Tie-Up for Swingin’ Summer,” Box Office, September 20, 1965, pB1; “USA, KFWB Host Schools To Promote Summer,” Box Office, November 1, 1965, pA3; “The Exhibitor Has His Say,” Box Office, October 24, 1965, pB4; “The Exhibitor Has His Say,” Box Office, September 11, 1967, pA4. Variety box office figures: June 9, 1965, p9; August 4, 1965, p9; September 22, 1965, p9.

Raquel Before She Ruled

Raquel Welch did not exactly come out of nowhere. Potential audiences had probably seen her image without necessarily knowing her name. In retrospect, she had one of the cleverest build-ups of any new star. Of course, it wasn’t unknown for glamor pictures to pave the way for a new sex-queen, Marilyn Monroe had posed for plenty cheesecake pictures before she hit the screen.

But those kind of pictures did not break out of the confines of cheesecake magazines. Raquel Welch was different. Although she had taken the usual route of an ingenue, bit part in movies and television programs, there was no obvious sign that she was made for bigger things.

Not what you’d expect when you see the term “cover girl.”
And hardly the magazine men were going to buy.

Blink and you’ll miss her debut as a call-girl in A House Is Not a Home (1964). You wouldn’t have seen much more of her in Roustabout (1964) or Do Not Disturb (1965). When she won a role on television, she wasn’t credited much more than as saloon girl (The Virginian, 1964), stewardess (Bewitched, 1964), beauty queen (The Rogues, 1964) or the billboard girl in three episodes of Hollywood Palace (1964-1965).

There might have been an inkling of something in A Swingin’ Summer (1965). Reviews said she “shows promise” and “it’s hard to look away when she’s in view” but this was a low-budget beach movie with little chance of becoming a breakout. (Though by the time it reached Britain in October 1966, she was miraculously the denoted star.)

Amateur photogrpahers of course lived the dream.

And although Welch would later claim all the fuss over One Million Years B.C. took her by surprise, that she was just an ordinary mother of two, that was far from the case, as she was actively involved in trying to expand her movie career, whether with the help of studios like Fox and MGM, or as an independent producer. I mentioned in a previous article that the company she ran with her husband Patrick Curtis – Curt-Wel Productions – was attempting to put together starring vehicles for her. Long before Twentieth Century Fox entered the equation Curt-Wel announced that production would start in fall 1965 of The Other Side of the Fence, an original musical comedy.

Yet, even as her best efforts to improve her career prospects faltered, somehow she seemed to get far more coverage than other young women in her position. You were as likely to find her photo in a newspaper with Salvador Dali (involved with Fantastic Voyage) or Groucho Marx. But while her face adorned the covers of ordinary magazines in the U.S. – Real Story, Intimate Story, U.S. Camera & Travel and she modelled for adverts for Wate-On, it was a different story abroad. Magazines in Europe could not get enough of her, either adorning their covers, or given a full-page feature inside, parading in a bikini or skimpy clothing. No photographic editor on a European magazine turned down the opportunity of a spread featuring Raquel Welch.

Nothing could define the differences between current generations and that of the 1960s – unless anorexia was a hidden scourge – than this advert telling women to get bigger. A more sexist ad you could not find – “a full figure…is a man’s way of judging a woman.” !!!

And despite her lack of proven screen product, she was a guest at the world premiere in London of Born Free, was photographed cutting the cake to celebrate the first anniversary of The Sound of Music at the Dominion in London’s West End and was tabbed as “one of the most publicized stars of the year.”

Whereas features might use her name and explain that she was a rising star, perhaps justifying her presence by pointing to her role (sixth- billed) in A Swingin’ Summer (1965), she was usually anonymous on covers, just the gorgeous woman who attracted buyers on the newsstand.

And if the fur bikini doesn’t attract their attention, thought Hammer, we can always fall back on a more straightforward bikini shot. Tjhis advert appeared in “Variety” – one month
after the initial fur bikini advert.

And while Twentieth Century Fox had her under contract, and could throw out a whole rash of glamour pictures aimed at the glamour market, it was unlikely that more prestigious magazines would come calling. Yet they did. “There is no pinpointing exactly what it is about her,” noted the fawning author of a two-page feature, “Raquel Welch: The Definitive Chickie,” that appeared in the October 1965 issue of Esquire.

But if the journalist didn’t know what she had, Welch certainly did. “I just seem to have glomped on those foreign cats. I’m on every one of their covers,” she explained.

In those more innocent times, an actress might have Playboy sniffing around for a tasteful nude shot, but it was more usual for an actress to only apparently be naked but in reality conceal her entire body either by clever use of her arms or behind a bikini or a skimpy dress. Prior to One Million Years B.C., Welch had often been photographed in a bikini.

Spoof newspaper produced for the Pressbook.

But the fur bikini was something else. The image proved iconic.

Hammer knew and Twentieth Century Fox, the company that had built up Marilyn Monroe on the back of her sexuality, knew it. Welch was signed to a one-picture-a-year deal with the studio but it had exercised its option six months early when One Million B.C. – that remained the title as late as November 1965 – came up as part its contract with Hammer.

One Million Years B.C. received its world premiere in London in December 1966 and opened in the U.S. a couple of months later. The movie had gone before the cameras in the Canary Isles on September 19, 1965. In December 1965, 15 months ahead of the U.S. launch Hammer ran the first fur bikini advert in Variety. How prescient, you might think. The studio clearly knew Raquel Welch in a bikini could sell tickets.

Spot the Raquel.

It just didn’t know which bikini. It followed up that ad with another one of the actress in an ordinary bikini (if that word could ever be applied to how the star wore that item of clothing) standing on a beach in front of a boat. Eventually, of course, studio, exhibitor and public reaction made the decision for Hammer. Fur bikini won hands done.

The poster sold a million copies.

By the time the movie appeared she was one of the best-known women on the planet. If there had been an Internet in those days, she would have broken it. There hadn’t been an image like it since Monroe stood over grate and let the wind blow up her dress in The Seven Year Itch (1955).

Critics tended to be dismissive in the 1960s of anyone who led with their looks but Welch, like George Peppard for example, soon proved she could act, even if that was routinely ignored.

SOURCES: “Review”, A Swingin’ Summer, Variety, March 3, 1965, p6; “Review”, A Swingin’ Summer, Box Office, March 22, 1965, pA11; Advert, Screen Stories, June 1965; “Other Side of the Fence,” Box Office, July 26, 1965, pW5; “Raquel Welch Will Star in One Million BC,” Box Office, September 6, 1965, pW3; front cover, U.S. Camera & Travel, October 1965; “London Report,” Box Office, November 8, 1965, pE4; advert, Variety, December 1, 1965, p21; Advert, Variety, January 5, 1966, p179; front cover, Intimate Story, February 1966; “London Report,” Box Office, April 4, 1966, pE4; Real Story, 1966; “Review,” A Swingin’ Summer, Kine Weekly, October 20, 1966, p22; “MGM Productions Showcase New Talent,” Box Office, December 5, 1966, p12.

Banned, Reviled, Ignored: “Never Take Candy from a Stranger” (1960)

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.

Headline news in “Variety.

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.

Behind the Scenes: “The Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

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.

Contrary to expectation – and myth – it didn’t exactly stumble at the box office. A month after initial release its opening salvoes were advertised in “Box Office” magazine (November 25, 1968)
accompanied by some of the better reviews harvested.

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.

MGM’s Reissue Wheeze: Meet Demand One Day at a Time

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.

This was a series of adverts, with the main picture switiching by the week with an arrow pointing to its position in the program.

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 Jukebox approach in action. A sidebar lists all the famous songs the cinemagoer will hear again.

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.

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