Bestseller Hollywood, Part Three – Novelizations

Novelizations were the hidden secret of 1960s Hollywood. While the decade is better known for widescreen 70mm roadshows, James Bond and the spy deluge, the musical and western revival and the start of the American New Wave, the novelization revolutionized the way films were marketed. By the end of the decade virtually every film released was accompanied by a book tie-in, either a bestseller sold to Hollywood, or a film script turned into a paperback / soft cover book.

At the start of this boom, around 1960, studios virtually gave away screenplays to publishers and allowed them to turn them into novels in return for the marketing angle they could provide.  “Producers looked at tie-in books primarily as an exploitation aid not a source of income,” explained Patricia Johnson of paperback specialist Gold Medal Books in 1962. “Motion picture companies with no  more – and often much less – than a rough script are being besieged by droves of publishers vying for the right to novelize original scenarios.”

The novelizations were usually short – about 60,000 words – and therefore attractively priced for the reading public but they could sell as many as half a million copies. But except in particular circumstances, studios allowed the rights to go to publishers for minute amounts of money. And for one simple reason – marketing. Half a century before social media, there was little advance promotion of movies. The week they were about to be released would see a flurry of advertising, but in general little promotion before that. Even journalists who had attended the press junkets I mentioned in a previous Blog would concentrate their articles into the week of release.

“What a publisher does for a film concern,” said Johnson, “is it creates a nationwide market, a popular anticipation of a film before it would ordinarily be more than a vague glimmer in the public consciousness.” The 125,000 outlets for books included not just bookstores but locations that targeted passing trade with extensive foot traffic. Newsstands in the street, hotel lobbies, railroad stations, department stores, airports and drugstores all boasted racks of paperback books with glossy covers, informing potential moviegoers of forthcoming films. Studios wanted to take advantage of the promotional device that bestsellers turned into movies could generate. For studios they represented an early marketing tool. Incorporating the movie advert or photos of the stars raised awareness of a forthcoming picture long before the first advert had appeared in a newspaper or billboard.

Robert Bloch cashed in on his “Psycho” fame to turn his original screenplay for The Couch into a novel.

One of the earliest novelizations was for Rat Pack heist picture Ocean’s 11 (1960) – pictured at the top of this page – and it showed the format to which publishers readily adhered. As you might expect, the cover featured a still from the movie incorporating the main stars, but there was also, by dictat of the Writers Guild of America (the screenwriters union), mention of the original scriptwriters in the same size of typeface as the authors who had carried out the novelisation.

Very rarely did the original screenwriter undertake this task. For a start, most considered it beneath their dignity. But, secondly, they got paid anyway. The screenwriter automatically received one-third of the fee a publisher paid the studio and the same share of royalties. By the mid-1960s the WGA was negotiating for a set fee of $6,000 (about $50,000 equivalent now) so a nice amount for no work but less appetising for a full-time screenwriter to do the whole job.

Bellah’s novel “The Valiant Virginian” was the inspiration for the TV series “The Virginian.”

But there were exceptions. Robert Bloch decided to turn his original screenplay The Couch (1961) into a novel. But then he had the experience of Psycho (1960) behind him. Prior to the 1960 Hitchcock film, his novel had only sold only 4,000 copies in hardback. The success of the film shifted 500,000 copies in paperback. Bloch must have reckoned his name emblazoned on the cover – and gaining sole credit, fee and royalties – would be more financially beneficial. Western author James Warner Bellah undertook the novelizations of his screenplays for Sergeant Rutledge (1960), A Thunder of Drums (1961) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

But neither would have been as assiduously wooed by publishers as the team of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick who were jointly credited for the novelization of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  An extremely unusual aspect of this deal was that the novelization appeared first as a hardback. Although based on a Clarke short story, and despite the fact that Clarke was considered one of the greatest names in science fiction, on the writing side movie and book were promoted as joint efforts. Delacorte-Dell forked out a $150,000 advance for the hardback with a 15% royalty rate. Clarke/Kubrick refused to allow the hardback publisher a share of the paperback spoils for which they negotiated a 12-15% royalty, way above the norm.

Note how many credits for the original musical were carried on the cover.

Occasionally the novelization would be undertaken by an author famous in their own right, such as when another sci fi giant Isaac Asimov took on the task of writing the book based on the script of Fantastic Voyage (1966). Famed western writer Louis L’Amour was handed the novelization of James Webb’s script for How the West Was Won (1963). Irving Shulman was a well-known novelist when called upon to turn West Side Story (1961) and The Notorious Landlady (1962) into novels. Screenwriter Adela Rogers St John (The Girl Who Had Everything, 1953) novelized King of Kings (1961). Sci fi writer Robert W. Krepps churned out novelizations for historical epics El Cid (1961) and Taras Bulba (1963), comedy Boys Night Out (1962) and westerns Stagecoach (1966) and Hour of the Gun (1967). Crime writer Jim Thompson novelized James Lee Barrett’s script of western The Undefeated (1969).

Some who took the novelization coin later made their name as bestselling authors in the own right. Marvin H. Albert – later known for the “Tony Rome” private eye novels that were filmed starring Frank Sinatra – was a relatively unknown journeyman writer when he became the go-to author for comedy novelizations, lending his name to the books of Come September (1961), Lover Come Back (1962), Move Over Darling (1963), The Pink Panther (1963), The Great Race (1965) and Strange Bedfellows (1965). Similarly, David Westheimer, a year before he published the bestselling Von Ryan’s Express, knocked out the book of Days of Wine and Roses (1962) from the J P Miller screenplay.

But mostly the novelizations were produced by journeymen such as Richard Wormer (Operation Crossbow, 1965), Alan Caillou (Khartoum, 1966), Ed Friend (Alvarez Kelly, 1966), John Burke (Privilege, 1967), Richard Meade (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967), Ray Gaulden (Five Card Stud, 1967), Jackson Donahue (Divorce American Style, 1967), Michael Avallone (Krakatoa-East of Java, 1968) and Joseph Landon (Stagecoach, 1966).

Publishers were not above picking over the spoils of decades-old scripts. Borden Deal was hired to novelize an un-made 1933 script written by Theodore Dreiser, author of An American Tragedy; Johnny Belinda (1948) was novelized in 1961. There were other departures. When writer-director S.Lee Pogostin received a $10,000 advance to novelize his own Hard Contract (1969) the book that appeared comprised the original script with stage directions and filmic addenda, in part due to the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance (1969) which was published as a screenplay rather than being novelized.

No genre was safe. Even musicals were plundered for their appeal to the book-reading public or for moviegoers wanting another way of reliving the film they had seen or getting a flavor of a picture they might consider seeing. As well as West Side Story and The Music Man (1962), there were novelizations of My Fair Lady (1964), Funny Girl (1968) and Paint Your Wagon (1969), an unexpected bestseller thanks to Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin on the cover.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. Hollywood was notoriously lax when it came to release dates, the opposite of the publishing industry for whom such dates were sacrosanct. So a publisher could have put a great deal into organizing the delivery of hundreds of thousands of copies of a novelized title into over a hundred thousand outlets only for the book to molder away on the shelves waiting for a movie which arrived months late – or never at all. Or the movie might undergo a last-minute title change leaving publishers trying to flog a picture nobody had heard of.

SOURCES: “3-Yr Advance Campaign for King of Kings,” Hollywood Reporter, July 5,1961, p2; “Book Notes,” Hollywood Reporter, October 27, 1961, p9; “Book Notes,” Hollywood Reporter, December 5, 1961, p11; Patricia Johnson, “Ego, Yes, Indecision Often, But Love That Hollywood,” Variety, January 10, 1962, p42; “How the West Was Won with L’Amour,” Hollywood Reporter, January 26, 1962, p10; “Book Notes,” Hollywood Reporter, December 5, 1961, p11 “Book Notes,” Hollywood Reporter, January 17, 1962, p7; ; “Willson Novelizing Script,” Hollywood Reporter, February 5, 1962, p3; “Book Notes,” Hollywood Reporter, April 3, 1962, p8; “Book Notes,” Hollywood Reporter, August 15, 1962, p7; “Roger Lewis, Phil Langner and Corp Ready Garrick Production Slate,” Variety, November 13, 1963, p19; “Crossbow Books Tie In with Picture Release,” Box Office, May 31, 1965, pA2; “Stagecoach Screenplay To Become Paperback,” Box Office, March 14, 1966, pA1; “Signet Print Paperback of Cinerama Khartoum,” Box Office, June 13, 1966, pA1; “Divorce American Style Film and Book Tie-Up,” Box Office, June 20, 1966, p12; “Inside Stuff – Pictures,” Variety, August 10, 1966, p24; “Anti-Brush-Off of Writers,” Variety, November 16, 1966, p11; “Gold Medal Books to Print Alvarez Kelly Paperback,” Box Office, September 12, 1966, pA1; “Four Paperbacks Are Set On New Universal Films,” Box Office, September 19, 1967, pA2; “Sci Fi Award Goes To 20th-Fox for Voyage,” Box Office, September 26, 1966, pSW2; “Paint Your Wagon Set for Novelization,” Box Office, October 6, 1969, pA2; “The Undefeated Is Now Available in Paperback,” Box Office, November 3, 1969, pA2; “Inside Stuff – Pictures,” Variety, January 1, 1969, p23; “Advertisement, Krakatoa East of Java,” Box Office, November 17, 1969, p13-18; “Wagon Tie-In into Second Printing,” Box Office, December 1, 1969, pA2; “Marooned Printed in Paperback,” Box Office, December 15, 1969, pA1.

Countdown to the Top Films of the Year

This is by way of a trailer. By the end of the month – i.e. tomorrow – this Blog will have been running for an entire year. One of the interesting aspects of the Blog for me has been reader response to particular pictures. Some pictures I though would be stone-cold faves such as Easy Rider (1969), “Rat Pack” vehicle Sergeants 3 (1962), Lee Marvin in Point Blank (1967) and the unfairly neglected historical epic The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) have turned out to be less popular – in terms of views – than I might have imagined.

And, on the contrary, some films have generated an enormous number of views, far more in many cases than I had believed they would, far more than I had any reason to suppose any of my postings would.

So tomorrow (June 30) I am going to list the films I enjoyed most throughout the year – movies that qualified for my own five-star rating.

I am going to follow that up on Thursday (July 1) by publishing the list of the Top 25 most popular movie posts as judged by my readers.

But I thought it might be interesting as a little competition for people to guess what the most popular film has been. There’s no prize so there’s nothing to be gained by seeing what other people have suggested. It would certainly be interesting. So if you fancy doing this, then just put your suggestion in the Comments section.

I have posted over 200 reviews, the bulk of them on films themselves, though regular readers will know I also write about the makings of films, about how books are adapted into films and a few other movie-related subjects that catch my eye. But this tally will just refer to films rather than anything else.

Given this is my first year, I had no real expectations of what to expect, least of all that I would attract a regular following and that, overall, the Blog has exceeded my wildest expectations. I have attracted readers in over 70 countries, so it’s fascinating to observe how this particular decade has proved so interesting to such a wide audience.

Make sure you check out my post on July 1 to find out which were the most popular films of the first year of the blog.

4 for Texas (1963) ****

To my mind the best of the Frank Sinatra-Dean Martin collaborations, outside of the more straightforwardly dramatic Some Came Running (1958), and for the simple reason that they are rivals rather than buddies. The banter of previous “Rat Pack” outings is given a harder edge and it is shorn of extraneous songs.

I came at this picture with some trepidation, since it did not receive kind reviews, “stinks to high heaven” being a sample. But I thought it worked tremendously well, a delightful surprise, the ongoing intrigue intercut with occasional outright dramatic moments and a few good laughs.

It’s unfair to term it a comedy western since for a contemporary audience that invariably means a spoof of some kind, rather than a movie that dips into a variety of genres. In some respects it defies pigeonholing. For example, it begins with a dramatic shoot-out, stagecoach passengers Zack Thomson (Frank Sinatra), a crack shot with a rifle, and pistolero Joe Jarrett (Dean Martin) out-shooting an outlaw gang headed by Matson (Charles Bronson). When director Robert Aldrich (Sodom and Gomorrah, 1962) has the cojones to kill off legendary villain Jack Elam in the opening section you know you are in for something different.

After out-foxing Matson, Jarrett attempts to steal the $100,000 the stagecoach has been carrying from its owner Thomas. Jarrett looks to be getting away with it until he realizes he is still in range of Thomas’s rifle. Then Thomas looks to have secured the money until Jarrett produces a pistol from his hat. And that sets the template for the movie, Thomas trying to outsmart Jarrett, the thief always one step ahead, and the pair of them locking horns with corrupt banker Harvey Burden (Victor Buono), in whose employ is Matson.

The movie is full of clever twists, cunning ruses, scams, double-crosses, reversals and sparkling dialog. Whenever Jarrett and Thomas are heading for a showdown, something or someone (such as Matson) gets in the way. While Thomas has the perfect domestic life, fawned over by buxom maids and girlfriend Elya (Anita Ekberg), Jarrett encounters much tougher widow Maxine (Ursula Andress) who greets his attempts to invest in her riverboat casino by shooting at him.  

Take away the comedic elements and you would have a plot worthy of Wall Street and ruthless financiers. The story is occasionally complicated without being complex and the characters, as illustrated by their devious intent, are all perfectly believable.

It’s a great mix of action and comedy – with some extra spice added by The Three Stooges in a laugh-out-loud sequence – and it’s a quintessential example of the Sinatra-Martin schtick, one of the great screen partnerships, illuminated by sharp exchanges neither lazily scripted nor delivered. Even the blatant sexism is played for laughs.

Sinatra and Martin, especially, are at the top of their game. Forget all you’ve read about Aldrich and Sinatra not getting on. Sinatra never got on with any director. But an actor and director not getting on does not spell a poor picture. Sinatra brings enough to the table to make it work, especially as he is playing against type, essentially a dodgy businessman who is taken to the cleaners by both Martin and Buono.

The only flaw is that Ursula Andress (Dr No, 1962) does not turn up sooner. She has a great role, mixing seductiveness and maternal instinct with a stiff shot of ruthlessness, not someone to be fooled with at all, qualities that would resonate more in the career-making She (1965).  Anita Ekberg (La Dolce Vita, 1960) on the other hand is all bosom and not much else. Charles Bronson (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) demonstrates a surprising grasp of the essentials of comedy for someone so often categorized as the tough guy’s tough guy.

The biggest bonus for the picture overall is the absence of the other clan members – Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop – who appeared in previous Rat Pack endeavors Oceans 11 (1960) and Sergeants 3 (1963). Without having to laboriously fit all these other characters in, this film seems to fly along much better. As I mentioned, the fact that Sinatra and Martin play deadly enemies provides greater dramatic intensity.

Robert Aldrich was a versatile director, by this point having turned out westerns (Vera Cruz, 1954), thrillers (Kiss Me Deadly, 1955), war pictures (The Angry Hills, 1959), Biblical epic Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) and horror picture Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). But 4 for Texas called for even greater versatility, combining action with quickfire dialog, a bit of slapstick and romance and shepherding the whole thing with some visual flair.

If you are a fan of Oceans 11 and Sergeants 3 you will probably like this. If you are not, it’s worth giving this a go since it takes on such a different dynamic to those two pictures.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog: Oceans 11 and Sergeants 3; Frank Sinatra in The Naked Runner (1967); and Ursula Andress in The Blue Max (1966) and The Southern Star (1969).

Sergeants 3 (1962)***

There’s a terrific western directed by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) inside this Rat Pack offering, the second of four in the series. On the plus side are plenty twists on traditional scenarios, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin displaying a certain kind of easy screen charisma, and three exceptional and well-choreographed battle scenes. Sinatra, Martin and Peter Lawford play the eponymous sergeants, Lawford committing the cardinal sin of wanting to quit the regiment to get married, with Sammy Davis Jr. as a former slave, bugler (an important plot point) and horse-lover wanting to sign up, and Joey Bishop (television star and occasional movie actor) as their sergeant-major boss.

A fair bit of time is spent on the usual Rat Pack shenanigans, getting drunk, brawling, playing tricks on each other, and exploring odd comic notions such as playing poker with a blacksmith’s implements as chips. But when it gets down to proper western stuff, it fairly zings along, with a decent plot (a Native American uprising) and excellent action scenes. You could have had William Goldman writing the script for the number of reversals, where the picture keeps one step ahead of audience expectation. For a start, rather than flushing out outlaws from a town, the troopers have to remove Native Americans who have taken it over. Instead of the cavalry pursuing Native Americans, it is mostly the other way round. It is the soldiers rather than the Native Americans who attack a wagon. Sinatra finds himself employing a bow-and-arrow and then a tomahawk rather than being on the receiving end of such weaponry.  Instead of dynamite, the good guys make do with fireworks. Where Native Americans are usually pinned down, this time it is Sinatra’s merry band. And when it comes to resorting to serious violence, that, too is usually the remit of the Native Americans, not as here, Sinatra chucking man off a cliff.

When it sticks to action, the picture is very well done and involving. When Sinatra has to take charge instead of larking about, the movie has focus. Both Sinatra and Martin were undertaking serious roles around this time, the former in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the latter in political drama Ada (1961) so this might have appeared welcome relief. The comedy isn’t along the laugh-out-loud lines of Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) or Blazing Saddles (1973) and when the action is so full-on you wonder why anybody thought this required comedy at all, although there is a pretty good punchline ending. Action aside, it’s almost the equivalent of easy listening. The Rat Pack was a particular 1960s institution, the members joining each other on stage in Las Vegas or featuring in television programs, but there’s no real modern correlative.