Selling Paul Newman – The Pressbook for “The Prize”

You’ve got a new Paul Newman picture to sell to the exhibitors responsible for booking the picture into theaters – or not. So, do you mention the fact that he has been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar three times in the last five years? Nope, that gets discounted because that was serious Paul Newman, heavy dramas, weighty themes. This is new-look Newman – a thriller in the vein of North by Northwest. The movie is set against the background of the Nobel Prize, the most important award scheme in the world, so surely promotion could focus on that. Well, no, actually that’s kind of weighty as well.

Nope, your best bet, according to the marketing team putting together the Pressbook (Exhibitor’s Campaign Manual) for The Prize is – wait for it – nudity and food. The first promotional page of the manual hits you with a couple of great ideas based on the fact that in the movie Paul Newman ends up in a nudist colony with only a towel to protect his dignity. “Announce that the first fifty women at your theater opening day will receive a costume just like the one worn by Paul Newman in the film” – in other words a towel. And if that doesn’t work “install a peek-a-boo box in which theater patrons can see the famous nude scene.” After all, continues the manual in confident tone, you are sitting on “the controversy of the century.”

Next big idea – “pre-sell The Prize with gourmet foods from Sweden.” Apparently, a heavy focus on food promotion had worked wonders for previous MGM pictures The VIPs (1963) and The Wheeler Dealers (1963) and neither of these pictures could call upon the actual menu served at the actual Nobel Banquet for 800 people at the Stockholm City Hall. The Pressbook gives menu ideas for exhibitors to pass on to local newspapers including such delicacies as “Supreme de Poulet Farci a la Royal” which is basically chicken stuffed with goose liver, cognac and madeira.  Alternatively, housewives could be tempted into making “Charlotte a la Royal” which consists of pineapple sorbet, curacao parfait, almond pastries filled with Grand Marnier, almond meringue and candied grapes.

Luckily, there were more mundane marketing ideas more likely to appeal to the theater manager who believed the name of Paul Newman should be all he or she needed to sell the picture. MGM had cut a single of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme for the picture – four singles actually by four different artists – and that was guaranteed airplay in over 500 radio stations, the tune was also included in a composite album of movie themes.

And link-ups were also possible with your local book store, newsagent and drug stores for the movie tie-in paperback of the bestselling Irving Wallace novel with the stars on the cover.

It was only the last two pages of the 16-page glossy A3 Pressbook that carried any information on the film itself and the stars. German Elke Sommer making her Hollywood debut was given as big a push as Newman himself. She had taken the alternative route into acting of winning a dancing contest (according to MGM’s press office – a beauty contest according to Imdb) that led to a small part in an Italian picture.

The pressbook erroneously stated her second picture was directed by Vittorio De Sica, whereas he was merely the star and Sommer merely a supporting actress. By the time she came to make The Prize, she was a veteran with 25 pictures in the can. Sommer’s wardrobe as worn in the picture might also generate tie-ups with sweater shops, beauty salons and lingerie retailers. An idea for a lobby stunt was to stick an enlarged photo of Sommer on the wall and give a prize for the best sketch by a local artist.

Needless to say, neither director Mark Robson nor screenwriter Ernest Lehman merited a mention in the Pressbook.

The Prize (1963) ****

Thoroughly involving potboiler with alcoholic novelist Paul Newman turning unlikely detective to uncover murky double-dealings at the annual Nobel Prize ceremony. Based on the Irving Wallace bestseller set in Stockholm, director Mark Robson (Von Ryan’s Express,1965) strings together a number of different stories that coalesce in a gripping climax. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest,1959) brings alive what could have been a very soggy adaptation of a beefy bestseller with witty and literate dialog and a plot that hovers just the right side of hokum.

Elke Sommer, delegated to look after Newman, starts out as stuffed shirt not sexpot, allowing Newman’s attention to drift towards Emily Stratman (Diane Baker) – daughter of another winner Dr. Max Stratman (Edward G. Robinson) – while he is also dragged into romantic entanglement with neglected wife Dr Denise Marceau (Micheline Presle). Mostly, Newman just wants his next drink and his almost continual inebriation sparks some good comedy and he is gifted good lines to extricate himself from embarrassment. Simmering in the  background are warring winners – the Marceau husband-and-wife team and Dr John Garrett (Kevin McCarthy) convinced that Dr Carlo Farelli (Gerard Oury), with whom he is sharing a prize, has stolen his research.  

 There are sufficient character clashes and plots to be getting along with if you were just intent on taking a Valley of the Dolls approach to the material, that is, cutting between various dramatic story arcs, but, without invalidating the other subsidiary tales, the movie takes quite a different turn, providing the potboiler with considerable edge.  

Turns out that Newman is so impoverished that he has been writing detective novels under a pseudonym and suspecting that Dr Stratman is an imposter he starts investigating. So in some respects it’s a private eye procedural played out against the glamorous backdrop of the awards. But the clues are inventive enough and there is a femme fatale and once Sommer comes along for the ride and with Newman a target the picture picks up an invigorating pace. Echoing the humorous auction scene in North by Northwest is a sequence set in a nudist colony where Newman seeks refuge to avoid villains while another terrific scene plays out in the docks.

Newman looks as if he is having a ball. In most of his pictures he was saddled with seriousness as if every part was chosen with an eye on the Oscars. Here, he lets rip with a lighter persona, and even if he mugs to the camera once too often, the result is a screen departure that lifts the picture. Inebriation has clearly never been so enjoyable. Sommer is a delight, showing great dramatic promise. Edward G. Robinson (Seven Thieves,1960), more renowned for his gangster roles, convinces as a scientist. Diane Baker (The 300 Spartans, 1962), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers,1956) and Leo G. Carroll (North by Northwest) provide sterling support.

Robson directs with dexterity, mostly with an eye on pace, but it is Lehman’s script with occasional nods to Hitchcock that steals the show.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog – Paul Newman in Torn Curtain and Cool Hand Luke; Diane Baker in Marnie and The 300 Spartans; Elke Sommer in The Corrupt Ones and Mark Robson picture The Lost Command.  

 

Cool Hand Luke (1967) *****

Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) has none of the truculence of the ordinary rebel, consequence not part of his vocabulary, “it seemed a good idea at the time” his unfailing mantra. Outside of Butch Cassidy, a more amiable criminal you would struggle to find. He defies authority with a smirk, indiscriminate in opposing the system, whether devised by guards or prisoners and they are indiscriminate in return, swiftly punishing anyone who steps out of line.

First-time director Stuart Rosenberg’s meditation on martyrdom remains an iconic curiosity and one of a handful of great performances that showcase Paul Newman’s immense acting skills. It is about ten minutes too long, unremitting sequences of lorries travelling to and from work detail, in the morning or at night, and the work itself, way too repetitive, suggests a director who did not quite trust his audience to get it.

In a prison movie, the main narrative is always escape, but Luke is as much trying to escape from himself as his circumstances. There is a self-pitying aspect in him blaming God for making him the way he is. But beyond these gripes it remains an astonishing and involving work. This is a world reduced to a single common denominator – brutality. For a man who loathes rules, this is hell.

While no other character apart from Dragline (George Kennedy in an Oscar-winning role) and the Warden (Strother Martin in one of his best mean roles) is given much to do, nonetheless the rest of the cast do not merge into the background, facial expressions and tiny actions revealing character.  

There are a number of terrific scenes – Newman refusing to give in when beaten to a pulp in a boxing match, the egg-eating contest, the digging-the-hole method of destroying a man’s spirit, the guard bewailing the death of his dog. But the movie also examines the universal need for hero worship, Dragline’s bewilderment when Luke eventually fails to live up to expectation is affecting.

Two other aspects stand out. With every prisoner in the same uniform and the countryside bleak and undistinguished, Conrad Hall’s cinematography is miraculous while Lalo Schifrin’s score, with the wonderfully evocative simple theme, is continuously inventive. As definitive an examination of the outsider as the later Easy Rider.

What the Exhibitor Said

The only view the public in the 1960s ever heard was that of the movie critics. Generally more concerned with the bottom line than plaudits (unless those translated into box office), studios could harvest their own opinion about a movie’s worth through reported box office figures. Exhibitors were caught in the middle – being told by critics how good a movie was and by reports in Variety and other trade magazines how well it was doing on initial release.

But how a movie performed in first run often bore no resemblance to receipts in fifth or sixth or tenth or eleventh run, in small towns or places where the population barely topped the thousand-mark. So weekly trade paper Box Office magazine gave exhibitors a voice, allowing them to sound off about an under-performing picture or praise one that still had some juice left by the time it reached their location.

You will see from the titles mentioned below just how long it took for some movies to complete their runs. You can also see the conditions under which theater owners worked – some films only played two days or had their box office nullified by weather.

Reports below are from the March 30, 1964, issue of Box Office and I would assume exhibitors had played the films a few weeks prior to this date.

Hud (released May 1963), drama starring Paul Newman. “Business above average but no one seemed pleased in what they paid for.” – Ken Christianson, Roxy Theatre, Washburn (pop 913), North Dakota. Played Sunday and Monday. He also screened historical epic Taras Bulba (December 1962) starring Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis on a Sunday and Monday and commented: “Excellent, entertaining, interesting story but below average at box office. Just too many of this type.”

Bye, Bye Birdie (June 1963), musical starring Janet Leigh and Dick Van Dyke. “If you want a small town natural, play Birdie…Bad weather killed the box office.” – W. S. Funk, Kingstree Drive-In Theatre, Kingstree (pop 2,500), South Carolina.

The Haunting (August 1963), horror starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom. “It is doing all right. The advertising material is so good for a change that I’m not worried about this one.” – Jim Fraser, Auditorium Theatre, Red Wing (pop 12,500), Minnesota. Played Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

Nine Hours to Rama (April 1963), drama starring Horst Buchholz. “This picture was definitely a dud in my town. Might have been better as part of a double bill had it had less running time.” – Joseph Machetta, Emerson Theatre, Brush (pop 3,621 in 1960 Census), Colorado. Played Tuesday and Wednesday. The theater also showed the double bill of war drama The Young and the Brave (August 1963) starring Rory Calhoun and William Bendix with the older George Pal sci-fi Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961) and Machetta commented: “The combination was rewarding at the box office. I would suggest trying it as the combination provides interest to most ages.” Played this duo Thursday and Friday.

A Gathering of Eagles (June 1963), drama starring Rock Hudson and Rod Taylor. “A good picture but one of Rock Hudson’s poorest grosses. Airplane pictures don’t set the world on fire for me anymore.” – Terry Axley, New Theatre, England (pop 2,136), Arkansas. Played Sunday and Monday.

Donovans’s Reef (June 1963) with John Wayne and Lee Marvin. “A wonderful family comedy in color and drew a big turnout. John Wayne did a wonderful job and is a big favorite here.” – Leonard J. Leise. Roxy Theatre, Randolph (pop 1,029), Nebraska. Played Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

If you ever attended any of these theaters or know of them or were even in the audience for the pictures mentioned, please get in touch.