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.
Easy Rider, more acceptable artistically, stole Night of the Living Dead’s thunder the following year as the poster boy for a low-budget phenomenon that would, temporarily at least, usher in a new way of Hollywood thinking. But Night of the Living Dead – initially entitled Monster Flick and Night of the Flesh-Eaters – was movie-making as fairy tale, virtually a throwback to the old trope of doughty characters putting on a show in a barn.
Using guerrilla production techniques, the movie took an astonishing six months to make starting July 1967. Bronx-born George A. Romero specialised in advertisements and industrial shorts through his Latent Image company before branching out in Pittsburgh with some work colleagues from Hardman Associates to form a movie production company Image Ten, the name indicative of the initial ten investors.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking Romero and his gang were movie neophytes out of their depth. Technically, they were pretty accomplished, churning out adverts and shorts at a steady pace, the kind of education the likes of Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne enjoyed on the London advertising scene. According to Variety, Hardman was “the largest producer of record and radio shows in Pittsburgh…(running) the most completely equipped sound and film studio in the area” while Latent Image was the city’s “biggest producer of video and industrial shorts.”
The principals of both companies proved instrumental to the movie. While Romero took on directing, cinematography and editing duties, the screenplay was down to business partner John A. Russo while another partner Russell Streiner took on the role of producer. Hardman provided actors Karl Hardman, a former RKO contract player, and Marilyn Eastman, who also supervised make-up, costumes and special effects, while Kyra Schon, the dying daughter in the film, was Hardman’s real-life daughter. The rest of the cast were unknowns, Duane Jones in the lead had at least some stage experience, female lead Judith O’Dea had worked with the producers before, while Judith Ridley was a receptionist for the production company. Romance blossomed between O’Dea and Streiner.
Romero’s debut was heavily influenced by Powell and Pressburger’s British bizarre fantasy The Tales of Hoffman (1951) but the final film clearly draws on Richard Matheson’s celebrated 1964 sci-fi novel The Last Man on Earth – filmed in 1971 as The Omega Man and in 2007 as I Am Legend. Where Matheson’s book begins at the end, Romero wanted to show the beginning of how the undead came to rule the world. Since Matheson had used vampires, Romero needed an alternative.
Explained Romero: “I couldn’t use vampires because he did, so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. So I said, what if the dead stop staying dead?” That tapped into the attractive notion of living forever – until you realized what that entailed.
Shockerama pictures would be the easiest way to find a foothold on the distribution ladder. Initially devised as a horror comedy it took several drafts, the first couple involving aliens, before arriving at the concept of flesh-eating re-animated corpses.
Ben was originally envisaged as a blue collar truck driver and evolved into the more educated character as a result of rewriting by Duane Jones who objected to playing such a cliché. But improvisation was very much the order of the day. Recalled O’Dea: “I don’t know if there was an actual working script. We would go over what basically had to be done and then just did it the way we each felt it should be done.”
The initial investors ponied up $600 each but that proved insufficient as production developed, the company eventually raising $114,000. (The average cost of making a movie at that time was $1.6 million.) Budget dictated location be as remote as possible, the main locale a house scheduled for demolition. Chocolate syrup doubled as blood, human flesh was roasted ham and entrails supplied by one of the actors who was also a butcher. Clothing was anything the cast possessed that they didn’t mind being ripped. Color film was too expensive, and the resulting black-and-white footage has the effect of newsreel, almost a documentary rather than a work of fiction.
Although a myth has arisen that the movie struggled to find its way into the distribution food chain, that was not the case. Studios were desperate to find product and happy to hang their shingle on anything that could keep their clients, cinemas starved of movies, happy. Columbia and American International were both interested, but demanded a happy ending. When Romero stuck to his guns, the movie ended up with the Walter Reade organisation, a noted distributor of foreign and cult pictures, better suited to this kind of fare.
Nor was it sneaked out into cinemas as has been usually assumed. Given that by 1968 cinema managers owners were in part reliant on low-budget shockers, the National Association of Theater Owners instigated a nationwide “Exploitation Picture of the Month” campaign of which Night of the Living Dead was one of the early beneficiaries, as a result of its involvement scooping, for example, $117,000 from 26 houses in Philadelphia. and other pretty decent figures shown in the advertisement above.
Nor did it go out below-the-wire in Pittsburgh. A full-scale black-tie premiere was held on October 1, 1968, at the Reade-owned Fulton attended by Mayor Barr and the city’s safety director Norman Craig and various councillors. It rang a heavy box office bell, knocking up $62,000 – over $500,000 at today’s prices – for 11 theaters, outpointing Rosemary’s Baby (1968) which had played the same houses the week before. The distributor came up with a clever marketing ploy of taking out a $50,000 insurance policy with Lloyds of London against adverse audience reaction.
The film attracted controversy for going out un-rated. There was nothing unusual about that either. Only studios aligned with the MPAA Production Code had to submit their movies for the censor’s rating. Reade, which wasn’t involved in the Code, often imported movies from Europe and part of their attraction was that they were unrated, containing levels of nudity or violence that the official censor at the time would find impossible to pass. Lack of the vaunted Production Code Seal of Approval did not prevent a movie being shown, it just meant certain cinemas would not book it.
Chicago critic Roger Ebert made journalistic hay by complaining that kids were being allowed in to watch the movie. That he might be on hand to witness their shock at the images they saw seems hard to believe since critics usually viewed pictures in advance of opening at special screenings. In any case, in Chicago, Night of the Living Dead didn’t slip through the censorship net, but was passed by the local censorship board. His beef was with them, complaining that while the censors drew the line at nudity they had nothing against cannibalism. And it seems pretty odd that the management wasn’t aware of the film’s shocking content – presumably that being the reason it was booked in the first place – and permitted youngsters to troop in.
Although New York critics gave it the thumbs-down at least the New York Times (Vincent Canby no less), Post and Daily News took the trouble to see it, so it would at least benefit from editorial exposure. The trade press were mixed. While Variety railed that it “set a new low in box office opportunism,” its trade press competitor Box Office reckoned there was “an audience for this particular brand of sadism especially in drive-ins.”
Perhaps surprisingly given critical disapproval Night of the Living Dead enjoyed first-run outings in a variety of cities, though its main target was showcase (wide local release) and drive-ins. In Los Angeles it picked up a “hip” $10,500 at the 1,757-seat first-run Warren. (Multiply by ten to get an idea of how inflation would treat the gross and bear in mind this is pre-multiplex when cinema capacity could reach 5,000 and most city center emporiums seated 500-plus). In Boston it registered a “cool” $8,000 at the 1,250-seat Center. New York’s Broadway had to wait a year when the prestigious roadshow house the DeMille, in the week before it hosted 70mm extravaganza The Battle of Britain (1969), booked Slaves (1969)/Night of the Living Dead, grossing $21,000 in an eight-day fill-in run.
In its first New York showcase, when Night of the Living Dead was the main attraction with Dr Who and the Daleks in support, it scorched through $286,000 from 39 cinemas, the joint top result for the week. Returning a year later, as the support to Slaves put another $125,000 in the kitty from 26 plantations, again the top showcase performer for the week. Among notable wider releases were $14,300 from three in Dayton where it was “weekends at capacity in ozoners” (industry jargon for drive-ins). There was $10,000 from three houses in Minnesota.
Not being a contender for sale to television extended its screen life at a time when even big hits landed on small screens within a few years. As well as Slaves it was revived as the supporting feature to newer items Brotherhood of Satan (1971), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and The Nightcomers (1971). The teaming with Slaves racked up a “rousing” $82,000 in Detroit at the 5,000-seat Fox, and $55,000 the following week. The double bill with Brotherhood of Satan beat the previous week’s pairing of the reissued Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid/Mash. It formed part of an interesting triple bill at the 500-seat Plaza arthouse in Boston where it was teamed with Dutchman (1966) and Ulysses (1967).
But it was also building up a head of steam on the midnight screening circuit and began a record year’s run in that slot at the Plaza in Boston. Gradually, as it acquired more artistic credibility it turned up at prestigious New York 538-seat arthouse the Beekman with Invasion of the Body Snatchers in support (gross $5,000), ironically acting as trailer for a six-week programme of revivals based on “Ten Best” selections from critics which had avowedly spurned the movie. And it was chosen as the ideal companion for the once-banned Freaks (1932). Perhaps proof of the breakthrough into respectable cult territory, six years after initial release, was a New York showcase pairing with Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972), drumming up $63,500 from 29 bandstands.
By the end of December 1970, rentals (the amount the studio collects from cinemas as opposed to overall gross) stood at $1 million – which probably indicated a gross of around $3 million. It found a British distributor in Crispin and eventually rolled out successfully around the world with an estimated $18 million in global gross.
SOURCES: John Russo, The Complete Night of the Living Dead Filmbook (Imagine, 1985), p6,7, 31, 61, 70; Joe Kane, Night of the Living Dead (Citadel Press, 2010) p23; Jason Paul Collum, Attack of the Killer B’s (McFarland, 2004) p3; Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, January 5, 1969; Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere, A History of the Hollywood Wide Release, 1913-2017 (McFarland 2019), p161; “Pittsburgh Premiere Held for Walter Reade Thriller,” Box Office, October 8,1968, p8; “Pittsburgh’s Hometown Horror to Reade: Surprise Boff BO,” Variety, October 9, 1968, p17; “Review,” Variety, October 16, 1968, p6; “Big Success Claimed for Image Ten Film,” Box Office, October 21, 1968, pE1; Advert, Box Office, November 25, 1968, p7; “N.Y. Critics: A Shooting Gallery,” Variety, December 11, 1968, p19; “Sun-Times Wants Chicago ‘Absurd’ Censorship Brought to Halt,” Box Office, March 14, 1969, p10; “Pittsburgh’s Latent Image Make 2nd Film,” Variety, December 3, 1969, p4; “Pittsburgh’s Cannibal Film Big Box Office,” Variety, April 8, 1970, p13; Advertisement, Kine Weekly, June 16, 1970, p61; “Big Rental Films of 1970,” Variety, January 6, 1971, p11; “Year of Friday Midnight Showings,” Variety, August 16, 1972, p6.
Box Office Figures from Variety: December 4, 1968, p13; December 11, 1968, p10-p11; December 18, 1968, p8-p13; July 9, 1969, p8; March 4, 1970, p12; October 13, 1971, p8-p12; October 20, 1969, p9; October 27, 1971, p16; Mar 17, 1972, p10; April 12, 1972, p10; May 12, 1971, p8; July 19, 1972, p12; August 9, 1972, p8; September 25, 1974, p8.
The prospective casting was tantalizing. How about Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, a pairing for the ages, two of the toughest guys in screen history? Failing that, Eastwood and Charles Bronson, The Man With No Name vs The Monosyllabic Man? The role of Colonel Mortimer could also have gone to Henry Fonda or Robert Ryan before in one of the movie business’s oddest tales it ended up with Lee Van Cleef.
In due course Bronson and Fonda would work with Sergio Leone in the director’s best film, Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Fonda’s agent had already dodged Leone’s entreaties once, having rejected A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Marvin was, in fact, all set, an oral agreement in place until a few days before shooting began on For a Few Dollars More he suddenly opted instead for Cat Ballou (1965), a decision that won him an Oscar and turned him into an unlikely star.
When none of his first choices proved available or interested, Leone turned to Van Cleef. Or, more correctly, a photo of the actor pulled from an old casting catalog. Although a western buff like Leone remembered Van Cleef from his debut in High Noon (1952) plus Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Tin Star (1957) and a dozen other bit parts and supporting roles in westerns, Van Cleef had not been credited in a movie since The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
He proved virtually impossible to track down. No small surprise there because he earned a living mostly as a painter now, a car accident having left him with a limp. He couldn’t run, much less ride anything but a docile horse. He required a stepladder to get mounted. Leone flew to Los Angeles and his first sight of Van Cleef, older than his photograph, proved his instincts correct, Van Cleef’s face “so strong, so powerful.” The salary on offer, for a down-on-his-luck actor scarcely able to pay a phone bill, was a fat purse of $10,000. (Eastwood’s salary was $50,000 plus a profit share compared to just $15,000 for the first film).
Leone put him to work right away, the day he arrived in Italy filming reaction shots. It was just as well his input that day was so simple because, as Clint Eastwood had discovered, the language barrier was a problem. Equally disconcerting was that Van Cleef had no idea why he had been chosen, and since A Fistful of Dollars had not been released in the U.S., no inkling of the kind of western the director had in mind. At Eastwood’s urging, he nipped out to a local cinema and returned with the understanding that the script was “definitely second to style.” Van Cleef was easy to work with, and although he could put away a fair amount of liquid refreshment it never interfered with his work. He came ready for direction.
Leone had not wanted to make a sequel. His original plan was a caper picture called Grand Slam or a remake of Fritz Lang’s classic M to star Klaus Kinski or an autobiographical drama – Viale Glorioso – set in the 1930s. Jolly, the producers of A Fistful of Dollars, offered him a 30 per cent profit share on that film if he made a sequel, as they felt he was legally obliged to do. Instead, furious with his treatment at their hands, the director hit upon the title of a sequel For a Few Dollars More, the actual storyline only coming to fruition when he came across a treatment called The Bounty Killer by Enzo dell’Aquilla and Fernando Di Leo, who in exchange for a large sum, surrendered their screen credits. Luciano Vincenzoni completed the screenplay in nine days, leavening it with humor, after the director and his brother-in-law Fulvio Morsella had produced a revised treatment, Leone also involved in the final screenplay.
Leone found a new backer in Alberto Grimaldi, an Italian entertainment lawyer who worked for Columbia and Twentieth Century Fox and had produced seven Spanish westerns. He promised to triple the first film’s budget to $600,000, with the director on a salary and 50 per cent profit share.
Success bred artistic confidence. A Fistful of Dollars had broken all box office records in Italy, grossing $4.6 million, and so Leone sought to improve on his initial offering and develop an “authorial voice.”
Thematically, with two principals, initially rivals who end up as “argumentative children,” it took inspiration from westerns like The Bravados (1958) – the photo and the chiming watch – and Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz which pitched Burt Lancaster against Gary Cooper. While bounty hunters had cropped up in Hollywood, they were not ruthless killers, actions always justified, rather than merely professionals doing their job. So in some sense Leone was drawing upon, and upending, films like Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur (1953) and The Tin Star, Andre De Toth’s The Bounty Hunter (1954) and Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome (1959). Just as Clint Eastwood’s bounty hunter underwent change, gradually the character played by Gian Maria Volonte evolved from a straightforward outlaw called Tombstone to a stoned, sadistic bandit named El Indio.
With artistic pretension came attention to detail. Leone required historical exactitude not just relating to weapons used, but their ballistics and range. Lee Van Cleef’s arsenal included a Buntline Special with removable shoulder stock, Colt Lightning pump action shotgun, Winchester ’94 rifle, and a double-barreled Lefaucheux. Carlo Simi’s town, constructed near Almeria, contained a two-storey saloon, undertaker’s parlor, barbershop, telegraph office, jail, hotel and an adobe First City Bank. And there was nothing pretty about it. The saloon was dirty and overcrowded, machines belching so much smoke it “looked as if a man could choke in there.” Filming took place between mid-April and the end of June 1965.
Perhaps the biggest area for improvement was the music. Ennio Morricone had scored another nine films since A Fistful of Dollars. Both director and composer had ambitious ideas about how to use the music. The score was not recorded in advance, nor was Morricone given a screenplay, instead listening while Leone told him the story and asked for individual themes for characters. Morricone would play short pieces for Leone and if met with his approval compose longer themes. Each character had their own leitmotif, sometimes the same instrument at different registers, the flute brief and high-pitched for Monco (Eastwood) but in a low register for Mortimer, church bells and a guitar representing El Indio. In a very real sense, they were experimenting with form. Bernardo Bertolucci regarded Morricone’s music as “almost a visible element in the film.” Musical ideas regarding El Indio’s watch, however, were developed at the rough cut stage, its repetitive melody becoming “sound effect, musical introduction and concrete element in the story.”
As well as creating music for audiences, Leone’s films are punctured with music that holds particular meaning for characters, here the watch and in Once Upon a Time in the West the harmonica, in both films flashback used to assist understanding.
The myth of why it took so long for either film to reach the United States was based on two misconceptions, firstly that Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, whose Yojimbo (1961) A Fistful of Dollars closely resembled, had blocked its progress, secondly that it relied on screenwriter Vincenzoni to make the breakthrough via a contact working for United Artists.
In fact, there were more obvious reasons for resistance from American distributors. In the first place, you could not discount snobbery. The notion that the country that had invented the western should now be reliant on importing them from Italy seemed a shade abhorrent. Although For a Few Dollars More was sold to 26 countries in a day at the annual Sorrento trade fair in 1965 – at the same fair a year earlier there had not been a single taker for A Fistful of Dollars – the United States was not among the buyers, distributors perhaps even more daunted by the prospect of introducing so much violence to American audiences reared on the traditional western.
Foreign movies that made the successful transition to the United States arrived weighted down with critical approval and/or awards or garlanded with a sexy actress – Brigitte Bardot, Anna Magnani, Sophia Loren among the favored – and risqué scenes that Hollywood dare not include for fear of offending the all-mighty Production Code.
But sex was a far easier sell in the U.S. than violence. And an actor with no movie marquee such as Clint Eastwood did not fill exhibitors with delight and even the notion that A Fistful of Dollars was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) failed to stir the critics (as with The Magnificent Seven being a remake of Seven Samurai, most viewing the notion as repellent). So both the first and second pictures in the “Dollars” trilogy were stuck in distribution limbo for three and two years, respectively, before being screened in America.
And, initially, it had appeared that Italian audiences shared the same distaste for a cultural intruder such as A Fistful of Dollars. One cinema chain owner refused to book the film on the grounds that there were not enough female characters. A Fistful of Dollars was released in Italy in August, a dead period, since the month is so hot and everyone has abandoned the city for the beach. It opened – only in Florence and with neither publicity nor advertising – on August 27th 1964, a Friday, and did poor business that day and the next. But by Monday, it was a different story, takings had doubled and over the following two days customers were being turned away. New films typically played first-run for 7-10 days in Florence, A Fistful of Dollars ran for three months, triggering a box office story of Cinderella proportions.
But my research indicated there had been ample opportunity for an American distributor to snap up the rights to A Fistful of Dollars in 1965, two years before it was finally released there. In the first place, the music rights had already been purchased by New York firm South Mountain Music in March 1965 in expectation the film would acquire release that year. In December 1965 Arrigo Colombo, partner in Jolly, flew to the United States for the specific purpose of lining up a major distributor for A Fistful of Dollars. The company had previously secured U.S. distribution for horror product like Castle of Blood (1964) and Blood and Black Lace (1964) but those were outright sales.
With the movie already sold to Spain, West Germany, France and Japan, Colombo aimed to conclude a deal for the English-speaking market, “purposely holding back” from releasing the picture in those countries as he sought an all-encompassing contract. At that point, Kurosawa no longer stood in the way, that issue “now cleared up” settled in the normal fashion by financial inducement, in an “amicable settlement” Toho snagging the Japanese and Korean rights, the deal sweetened with a minimum $100,000 against a share of global profits. But Colombo went home empty-handed, unable to secure any deal and his temerity ridiculed by trade magazine Variety
Although Sergio Leone had one other legal obstacle to surmount that would not have got in the way of a U.S. distribution deal, the worst that could happen being that a contract might be struck with a different company. Italian companies Jolly Films/Unidis, which had backed the original, took umbrage at Leone going ahead with the sequel without their financial involvement, cutting them off from the profit pipeline. So in April 1966 they took Leone to court in Rome arguing that For A Few Dollars More “represented a steal as well as unlawful competition for its own Fistful.” Four months later the judge denied the claim on the grounds that “the character played by Clint Eastwood in each film is not characterized to such a degree that a likeness exists” (even though to all intents and purposes it was the same character, cigar, poncho, gun, bounty hunting!). Ironically, Italian laxity in such matters counted against Eastwood when he failed to prevent the distribution of a film based on two segments of Rawhide stitched together.
It would also be highly unusual if United Artists was not aware of both A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few DollarsMore since, in keeping tabs on the foreign performance of both Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965) the studio could scarcely fail to notice the Italian westerns close on their box office tail, the second western outpointing Thunderball in daily averages in Rome.
But the story still, erroneously, goes that it was the intervention of writer Vincenzoni which proved decisive. He had contacts in U.S, namely Ilya Lopert of United Artists. Grimaldi was, meanwhile, trying to sell U.S. and Canada rights relating to the second picture. Vincenzoni arranged for UA’s representatives to view A Fistful of Dollars in Rome and cut himself in for a slice of the profits when the distributor surprisingly purchased the entire series.
Since A Fistful of Dollars had already been sold to most major territories, UA could only acquire the North American rights – for a reported $900,000 – but for the other two films gained a considerably larger share of global distribution
United Artists was an unusual company among the Hollywood hierarchy, and not primarily due to recurrent Oscar success, but because it had, completely unexpectedly, hit box office gold with James Bond. There was nothing particularly odd about a series, as Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes etc (still flourishing in the 1960s) testified. What was distinctive about the Bonds was that each picture – the four so far had earned close to $150 million worldwide, not counting merchandising – had done better than the last, which went against the standard rule of sequels of diminishing returns and higher costs. Given the opportunity to buy into a ready-made series (two films in the can, the third in production) UA made an “attempt to calculatedly duplicate the (Bond) phenomenon” and in so doing “create a trend.” Assuming the movies would follow the Bond formula of increased grosses with each successive picture, the studio was prepared to spend “many hundreds of thousands” of dollars to establish the first picture.
United Artists embarked on an unusual sales campaign to the trade. Instead of marketing the pictures one at a time, they started to promote the series with the tagline “A Fistful of Dollars is the first motion picture of its kind, it won’t be the last.” The advertising campaign was unusual in that it was based entirely around introducing the character rather than the story (much in the same way as James Bond had been), three separate slivers of the poster devoted to visual aspects, the cigar, gun and poncho, each carrying mention of “The Man With No Name,” such anonymity one of the talking points of the movies.
Cinema managers were briefed on release dates, A Fistful of Dollars in January 1967, the sequel for April and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for Xmas that year. Like the Bonds, it was expected that box office would progressively, if not explosively, increase. The studio unveiled a “hard-hitting campaign” designed to “intrigue the western or action fan.”
However, the North American premiere was held not in the United States but Canada, at the Odeon-Carlton in Toronto. Having committed to a four-week engagement, a risky prospect for an unknown quantity, the cinema started advertising a teaser campaign three weeks in advance. During the first week, posters were not just focused on the “man with no name” but also “the film with no name” and the “cinema with no name,” all those elements removed from the artwork until the second week of the campaign. UA allocated $20,000 in marketing, up to four times the usual amount spent on a launch there, and was rewarded with strong results – “bullish but not Bondish” Variety’s verdict.
However, the UA gamble did not pay off, especially when taking into account the high cost of buying the rights allied to huge marketing costs. Initial commercial projections proved unrealistic. Despite apparently hitting the box office mark in first-run dates in key cities, the film was pulled up short by its New York experience. Shunted straight into a showcase (wide) release rather than a first-run launch, it brought in a pitiful $153,000 from 75 theaters – even The Quiller Memorandum (1966) in its second week did better ($150,000 from 25). As a consequence when For a Few Dollars More was released in April/May, UA held off boking it into New York until “a suitable arrangement” could be made, which translated into hand-picking a dozen houses famed for appealing to action fans plus 600-seat arthouse the Trans-Lux West.
United Artists predicted $3.5 million in rentals (the amount returned to studios after cinemas take their cut of the gross) for A Fistful of Dollars and $4.5 million with For a Few Dollars More. Neither came close, the latter the marginally better performer with $2.2 million in rentals (enough for a lowly 41st on the annual chart) with the first film earning $2.1 million in rentals (46th) way behind more traditional performers like Hombre ($6.5 million for tenth spot), El Dorado ($5.9 million in 13th) and The War Wagon ($5.5 million in 15th).
The vaunted Bond-style box office explosion never materialized and it might have helped if UA had kept closer watch on the actual revenues posted in Italy for the series. While For a Few Dollars More increased by $2 million the takings of A Fistful of Dollars, the final film in the trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly produced lower grosses than even the first.
However, it did look as if The Good, the Bad and the Ugly would come good. UA opened it in two first-run cinemas in New York where each house retained it for six weeks. But although the final tally of $4.5 million (24th spot in the annual rankings) was the best of the series, it did not herald returns that made it anywhere near comparable to the Bonds.
It’s possible the movies did better in terms of admissions than the box office figures show. Distributors pushing foreign product into arthouses were generally able to achieve a high share of the rental – 50 per cent the going rate – because they were able to set rival arthouses against each other and movies with a sexy theme/star had inbuilt box office appeal, La Dolce Vita (1960) and And God Created Women (1956) the classic examples. But that would not be possible when trying to interest ordinary cinemas with a film lacking in sex.
When I researched the early Bonds for a previous Blog, I found that United Artists had only managed to achieve bookings for Dr No (1962) by lowering its rental demand. Exhibitors paid the studio just 30 per cent of the gross. And I wondered if perhaps the same occurred with A Fistful of Dollars given the star, like Sean Connery, was completely unknown. Of course, it would not explain why the series did not grow as expected.
Of course, there was a surprising winner and an unexpected loser in the whole ‘Dollars’ saga. Clint Eastwood emerged as the natural successor to John Wayne with a solid box office – and later critical – reputation for American westerns starting off with Hang ‘Em High (1968) which beat The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at the box office, while Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) proved a huge flop in the U.S.
Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone, Something To Do With Death (Faber & Faber, 2000), p160-162, p165-200; “Italo’s Own Oater Leads Box Office,” Variety, December 2, 1964, p16; “South Mountain Buys Dollar Score,” Variety, March 10, 1965, p58; “Jolly’s Colombo Discovers N.Y.C. Busy at Xmas,” Variety, December 22, 1965, p3; “Tight Race for Box Office Honours in Italy Looms as Thunder Leads Dollars,” Variety, January 65, 1966, p15; “Dollars World Distribution for UA,” Variety, March 22, 1966, p22; “Clint Eastwood Italo Features Face Litigation,” Variety, April 13, 1966, p29; “UA Cautious on Links to Italo Fistful; Faces Slap from Kurosawa,” Variety, July 13, 1966, p7; “Rome Court Rejects Plea for Seizure of Few Dollars Made By Fistful Film,” Variety, August 3, 1966, p28; “Clint Eastwood vs Jolly on 2 Segs of Rawhide ‘Billed’ New Italo Pic,” Variety, September 7, 1966, p15; “Italy Making More Westerns, Spy Films Than Star Vehicles,” Box Office, October 31, 1966, p13; “Hemstitched Feature,” Variety, November 23, 1966, p22; “UA Division Holds Screenings of Westerns,” Box Office, December 12, 1966, pE2; Advertisement, Variety, December 21, 1966, p12-13; “UA Gambles Dollars As Good As Bonds,” Variety, December 28, 1966, p7; “Fred Goldberg Shows Ads on UA ‘Dollar’ Films,” Box Office, January 2, 1967, pE4; “Review,” Box Office, January 9, 1967, pA11; “Fistful of Dollars: Male (and Italo) B.O.,” Variety, January 18, 1967, p7; “Fistful of Dollars: The Glad Reaper,” Variety, February 1, 1967, p5; “This Week’s N.Y. Showcases,” Variety, February 8, 1967, p9; “Fistful’s Weaker N.Y. B.O. Clench,” Variety, February 8, 1967, p7; “Methodical Campaign Kicks Off Ideal Fistful Ballyhoo in Toronto,” Box Office, May 1, 1967, pA1; “Few DollarsMore Runs 30% Ahead of First Dubbed Italo-Made Western, So Bond Analogy Makes Out,” Variety, May 31, 1967, p4; “N.Y. Slow to Fall Into Line,” Variety, May 31, 1967, p4; “B’way Still Boffo,” Variety, July 12, 1967, p9; “Carefully Picked,” Variety, July 12, 1967, p4; “B’way Biz Still Big,” Variety, July 19, 1967, p9; “Big Rental Films of 1967,” Variety, January 3, 1968, p25; “B’way B.O. Up,” Variety, January 31, 1968, p9; “Big Rental Films of 1968,” Variety, January 8, 1969, p15.
Producer Joseph E. Levine was so carried away by the sensational performance of Zulu (1964) in Britain that he earmarked a million-dollar marketing budget for its U.S. launch. Levine was already doing the rounds of U.S. exhibitors in January 1964 and it was reviewed that same month in Variety – which predicted it would be a “sturdy box office prospect” – leading observers to believe its launch was imminent. That it was held back till the summer suggested interest from the trade, not as fascinated by an obscure war in Africa as the British, was not as high as the producer would have liked. Even then Box Office magazine reckoned it “should be a box office smash” to emulate the $589,000 it had taken in nine weeks in the first run Plaza in London’s West End coupled with two weeks in 29 houses on the British ABC circuit.
But somewhere along the line Levine had lost heart and promoted it as if was Hercules all over again, 500 simultaneous bookings in a month, little time to build on the decent box office it attracted in New York in two weeks at the first run Palace. The drubbing Zulu (1964) received at the American box office – it did not even attract the $1 million in rentals needed to place it in the Variety annual box office chart – made trade journalists, while recognizing Michael Caine’s initial promise, reserve judgement on his future, observing that he “still has some ground to cover before he becomes as familiar to filmgoers as Sean Connery.”
Despite Zulu’s failure, Variety predicted that Caine’s performance had “won this blond young man a swift passport to potential stardom” and even while The Ipcress File (1965) divided critics, the trade paper reported “there’s no disputing Caine’s personal impact…the sky’s the limit.”
To justify his deal with Harry Saltzman, Caine was committed to appearing in ten films in five years, although the producer was not only happy to loan him out to other studios but share the spoils. That was an unusual trait, given that stars as varied as Sandra Dee, Carroll Baker and Rock Hudson bristled at what they saw as exploitation, when their paymaster retained the entire amount gained from loaning their services to other studios, often pocketing a hefty profit in the process. Caine, on the other hand, “kept the major share of any loan-out loot.”
After The Ipcress File, Caine would have five films released in the U.S. in the space of eight months from July 1966 to February 1967, an output that could make or break him. In order of U.S. launch these were: black comedy The Wrong Box (1966), ribald sex drama Alfie (1966), caper movie Gambit (1966), a second outing for Harry Palmer in Funeral in Berlin (1966) and big-budget steamy Otto Preminger drama Hurry Sundown (1967) not to mention a reissue in 1967 of Zulu to capitalize on his growing fame.
The breadth of acting skills Caine brought to these diverse movies caught the attention, by and large, of the critics as well as the industry. The National Association of Theater Owners, proclaimed him their Future Star of the Year in September 1966 with the ringing endorsement of “never has a newcomer to films so fully and immediately captured the imagination of the world audience.”
Oddly enough, there was no better follow-up as far as America was concerned to The Ipcress File than The Wrong Box in which he was a last-minute replacement for American actor George Hamilton. The Wrong Box (1966) presented Caine as the timid romantic opposite of the lothario of Alfie and the accomplished seducer of The Ipcress File (1965) but it was the kind of role to make critics sit up and wonder what else he had in his acting box of tricks.
But the release strategies employed by the various distributors, Columbia for The Wrong Box, Universal for Gambit and Paramount for the other three, ensured that the movies did not go down the Levine saturation-release route that had done for Zulu. Limited openings in prestigious arthouse-style cinemas allowed for slow build. In fact, it was almost tantamount to creating ‘sleepers’ out of every film. A film that remained for months at a time in one or two cinemas in a major city was the best way of driving up word of mouth. And during this hectic period whenever Caine was promoting one film, he was also being asked about all the rest.
It was almost inevitable that when a new picture opened, all the others were still playing. As a measure of how well this unplanned strategy worked, at Xmas 1966 his films were playing in six first run cinemas in New York, far more than any other star, and far more than any other star in the history of Hollywood. Each new opening boosted the box office of all the rest and when Oscar consideration or Year-End Best Awards entered the equation they served notice that, through his other films, this was an actor with a wide range of skills.
What had become quickly apparent to studios was that they had no idea how to assess Caine’s box office appeal. Such reticence proved invaluable. The limitations imposed on his film launches ensured that audience demand would dictate the release pattern. Only after Universal had opened The Ipcress File to sensational business at the Coronet in New York at the start of August 1965 did it consider widening the movie out. Audience response gave the studio the confidence to book it towards the end of the following month into Grauman’s Chinese in Los Angeles for an “unprecedented booking.” The two cinemas could not have been more opposite – the New York house seating just 590, the Los Angeles venue nearly three times as much with 1,517 seats. The studio was “evidently convinced to go commercial with the picture nationwide as booking into Grauman’s indicates.”
Columbia almost copied that campaign to the letter. The Wrong Box opened in early July 1966 to an “amazing” $35,000 at the 700-seat Cinema One. What was just as astonishing was that it was pulling in $28,500 in its seventh week by which time it had begun first run engagements across the country – a “socko” $25,000 in Chicago, “wham” $25,000 in Philadelphia, “boffola” $20,000 in Boston, “boffo” $18,000 in Washington D.C.
Although distributed by a different studio, Alfie followed a similar pattern, opening in New York again at the Coronet and also at the 500-seat New Embassy, breaking all-time records at both cinemas. Alfie, however,was less of a risk. On the financial front, it had already recouped its $750,000 costs solely from its London run. On the critical front, the film had won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes.
Just as important was Paramount’s marketing backing. A 16-page A3 Pressbook began by detailing both the critical acclaim enjoyed by the picture on its New York opening and its subsequent commercial success. Every advertisement was garnished with critical quotes: “Alfie bubbles with impudent humor and ripe modern wit” (Bosley Crowther, New York Times), “delightful comedy” (Judith Crist, NBC Today Show), “you are going to enjoy Alfie very much” (Life). “There’s no question about it,” crowed the Pressbook, “Alfie has completely conquered New York…(and) is the new champ of the press.” The New York Times had run four separate articles on the film, major magazines lined up to profile the star, on publicity duties Caine had come across as charming and personable, and the movie’s theme song topped the charts.
Three pages of the Pressbook were devoted to Michael Caine, calling him “multi-talented” and setting out the proposition, “Will Alfie’s Michael Caine Become the Newest Teenage Idol?” Caine predicted, “I believe it takes at least five movies to make a star of anyone,” counting Zulu as his first, plus The Wrong Box and Alfie. Given Funeral in Berlin and Gambit were still to come, he was already well on the way to proving himself correct.
Alfie launched in New York a few weeks after The Wrong Box had already whetted appetites. The Coronet delivered a $43,000 opener and the New Embassy $33,400, both all-time non-holiday records. Second weeks were equally potent, $40,000 at the Coronet, $33,000 at the New Embassy.
So Paramount “nursed” the sleeper. It didn’t properly expand until Thanksgiving and even then was limited to 56 theaters which had to commit to 14-week runs that would see it safely past Xmas and New Year so as to be “in active exhibition” during Oscar season. Before the first Oscar nomination was in, Paramount had pulled in $3m million in U.S. rentals (the studio’s share of the box office gross) and about the same again overseas (including Britain). Winning five Oscar nominations – including Best Picture and Best Actor – boosted takings.
The Xmas 1966 unofficial “Michael Caine Season” saw a three-cinema New York opening for Funeral in Berlin (budgeted at $2.6 million) and one house for Gambit while Alfie was still playing in two houses. The Harry Palmer sequel rocked up with a “wow” $40,000 – equivalent to $356,000 today – opening week at the 813-seat Forum, an “amazing” $21,000 ($187,000 equivalent) at the 450-seat Guild (extra shows to cope with the demand) and $37,000 ($330,000 equivalent) at the 568-seat Tower East. Gambit knocked up a “smash” $20,000 at the 561-seat Sutton with Alfie bringing in a “wham” £21,000 in its 18th week at the New Embassy plus $14,000 in its first week at the 430-seat Baronet. The capacities of all these cinemas showed that, in reality, they were glorified arthouses rather than the bigger 1,000-plus-seaters where the big-budget pictures resided.
In Britain, a top box office draw, in America king of the arthouses.
How well his movies did outside that limitation depended on popularity and accessibility. Pairings with top female stars like Shirley MacLaine (Gambit) and Jane Fonda (Hurry Sundown) ensured that the actor’s transition into the Hollywood elite was painless. His career has had many ups and downs, and many fans know him only from his appearance in Christopher Nolan films, but in celebrating a career that encompasses nearly 70 years as a star, no one should forget the eight months that turned him into one.
SOURCES: “Levine Heads Zulu showmanship Meets,” Box Office, January 13, 1964, p8; “Big Zulu Whoop,” Variety, January 15, 1964, p3; Review of Zulu, Variety, January 29, 1964, p6; “Levine Sells His Theatres,” Box Office, February 10, 1964, pNE2; Advert for Zulu, Variety, April 29, p26-27; “Britain Bubbles with Talent,” Variety, April 29, 1964, p58; Review of Zulu, Box Office, June 22, 1964, pA11; Review of The Other Man, Variety, September 16, 1964, p41; Review of The Ipcress File, Variety, March 1965, p6; “Newcomer Talent in British Pix,” Variety, May 12, 1965, p57; Advertisement for Zulu, Box Office, Jun 15, 1964, p3; “Ipcress File Pre-Release in NY Aug 2,” Box Office, July 26, 1965, pE4; “Michael Caine No Bottled-In Bond,” Variety, September 15, 1965, p30; “Grauman’s Sets Extended Run of Ipcress File,” Box Office, September 20, 1965, pNC1; “Preminger Signs Caine,” Box Office, April 11, 1966, pE1; “Funeral in Berlin Budget $2,600,000,” Variety, April 27, 1966, p29; “Caine Is Able at B.O. with Five Star Roles in 33 Months since Zulu,” Variety, August 31, 1966, p2; “Michael Caine Named NATO Future Star,” Box Office, September 19, 1966, p3; “Par Nurses Its Alfie with Limited Playoff Through Holidays,” Variety, October 12, 1966, p21; “Michael Caine On Tour for Funeral in Berlin,” Box Office, November 21, 1966, pE2; “Embassy Reissues Three Caine, Belmondo Films,” Box Office, January 9, 1967, p10; “Alfie Could Be Par’s Tom Jones,” Variety, February 1, 1967, p3. Box office figures taken from the “Picture Grosses” section of Variety: July 20, 1966-September 24, 1966 and December 28, 1966.