Charlie Chaplin: All-Time Reissue King

Next month in my home-town of Glasgow, they are holding a centenary screening of Safety Last! (1923), the movie in which Harold Lloyd made his name. No doubt the centenary revival machine will swing into action for Buster Keaton the following year for The Navigator (1924). But nobody thought a couple of years back to revive The Kid (1921), the first great film by Charlie Chaplin.

It was always so ever since academics got their teeth into the silent era and decided which stars should be venerated and who should be left by the wayside. Luckily, for the public, academics weren’t in charge in the 1960s. For in that decade – as in the previous half century – Charlie Chaplin had reigned supreme in the silent move reissue business. This was in part because long after the industry had switched to talkies, Chaplin stuck to making his movies silent.

The Charlie Chaplin reissue phenomenon dated back to 1915 and was synonymous with his rise to instant fame. Cinemas that could not afford his new films promptly re-hired his old ones. Old or new the public didn’t seem to care. They flocked to the cinema just the same. When there was a production slump in the aftermath of World War One, Chaplin oldies were to the fore, as they were once again in 1921. In 1926 Pathe paid $500,000 for the rights to four pre-United Artists Chaplin oldies – as much as studios were paying to make a new film.

Part of Chaplin’s deal with United Artists, the studio he helped to form, was that he owned the copyright to his movies so he could control when they were revived and prevent another studio from bringing them back to capitalize on his newer movies. That didn’t always work out because he didn’t own the rights to most of his shorts, allowing a dozen to be reissued, with sound and music, in the 1930s.

With the advent of television, where other older stars, believing their careers were in abeyance if not at a full stop, succumbed to the financial lure of the small screen, Chaplin point blank refused. Oddly enough, it was the centenary angle that played into his hands in the 1950s. He was 70 in 1959, although that decade had not proved as welcoming to his new pictures, Limelight (1951) excepted, and he was so out of favor with the establishment that his name was not among the 1500 initially considered for the Hollywood “Walk of Fame.”

By this time he was viewed as an arthouse darling. His oldies were so successful in 1959 that Modern Times (1925) after its re-launch in New York transferred successively to larger arthouses, each time setting a weekly record with finally, in an unprecedented switch, it ended up on a Broadway first run house.

The 1960s saw a general revival of interest in comedians spurred by the Robert Youngson  compilations, a jukebox of silent movie snippets.

But in 1963, Chaplin struck again, this with an original reissue format that proved catnip to arthouses, and eventually, mainstream. Key to this was the idea of a “season” of his films. This was a sea change. Arthouses regularly brought back old movies, but only for a day or two at a time, and screened in this fashion a “season” of a star or director’s old hits could run for two or three months.  

Chaplin decided his movies should run individually for as long as there was public demand for each movie. In other words, they would play like a new movie in a major first run house, which could hold onto pictures for as long as the owner wanted, retained “by public demand,” until they were played out. The “season” would last as long as the public deemed fit.

The experiment was launched at the mainstream Plaza in New York with City Lights (1931). The record opening of $35,600 beat highs set by Never on Sunday (1960). All the rest opened at the high end of expectations, figures met in Variety’s weekly box office roundup with headlines of “socko” or terms of disbelief. By letting the “retained by public demand” notion run to its limit, the entire season ran for 41 weeks – longer than most roadshows – and collected receipts of $658,000, as much as a long-running roadshow without any of the financial investment. It was boom-time for arthouses.

Amazingly enough, the story was repeated in the 1970s after former Columbia sales chief Mo Rothman paid $6 million (plus a percentage of the gross) for world rights to Chaplin oldies for 15 years. US rights were hived off to independent producer Oliver Unger who set about marketing The Chaplin Festival. Unger was something of a marketing whiz. He tied up a deal with the Arts Guild circuit in 15 cities – in arthouse terms this was as close to wide release  as you could get. He organized a six-page feature in Vogue and a nationwide tie-in with Franklin Simon stores.

The re-launch was helped by news Chaplin would visit New York for the first time in two decades, receive a special Oscar in 1972 and finally be inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Unger lined up radio play of songs from the films and an album by Dave Brubeck consisting of theme music. As another publicity gimmick, he dreamed up a special rating – “E” for Everybody. He came up with the idea of discount tickets – in Chicago alone 34,000 moviegoers opted for the cheaper season ticket.

The consequence of Unger’s endeavors was that before the first movie was even screened he had tied up bookings with 36 cinemas for the Chaplin Festival. Modern Times (1936) was selected to spearhead the Festival, opening on December 18, 1971, at the 580-seat Lincoln Art Theater in New York to a record opening week of  $26,000, an achievement repeated across the country. Modern Times ran for 14 weeks in New York and Boston. The series was so successful that the last film in the season, The Great Dictator (1940), didn’t hit New York till June 1972 and scored an opener of $26,800 and ran for another 10 weeks.

The arthouse runs were so successful that Unger managed to sell the concept to Columbia for $2 million. That shifted emphasis from arthouse to first run and showcase (multiple-run in a city or region). Modern Times beat Gone with the Wind to the title of the oldest film given showcase release in New York. Modern Times ran two weeks in showcase. The Great Dictator did so well in showcase it was the first silent film to appear in the weekly box office Top Ten. Limelight also went down the showcase route. The movies were also shown on airlines.

Later in the 1970s Paramount acquired many of Chaplin’s earlier shorts and sent them into the 16mm university campus market. Towards the end of the decade, with Chaplin to the fore, Kino international created a Silent Clowns Festival to coincide with the Water Kerr book of the same name. It ran for five weeks at the Eighth St Playhouse in New York.

Without doubt Chaplin was the all-time reissue champ. For over six decades, the public turned out in droves to see his movies and his revival box office was more than all the other silent stars in reissue combined.

SOURCE: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You: A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016), p10, 20, 22, 23, 25-29, 32, 35, 37, 39, 40, 70, 75, 193, 212, 222, 232, 255, 256, 281, 285. In the book – which runs to 250,000 words – there are pages and pages of references to Chapln reissues so forgive me if I don’t quote them all here.

The Magic Vault – Return of the Reissue

You are probably aware by now that Hollywood reckons the very movie to fill the Valentine’s Day gap this year is the love story that took Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to a watery grave – Titanic (1997). The date might be a surprise but with Avatar: The Way of Water conquering box offices worldwide a re-run of his previous gigantic success was always on the cards.

What might come as a shock is how much Hollywood has come to rely on oldies to fill gaps in the release schedule – so much so that a reissue of a biggie has been slated for every month in the forthcoming year. As you are probably aware from my discursive writings on the subject, the reissue has been a staple of the industry since the 1960s, and as often as not appearing when stocks of new films were at a low ebb.

Covid was an unexpected production disaster and with new films in short supply and audiences falling short of the norm the studios felt it better to hold on to big films until cinemas were back to something approaching normality. Thank goodness someone in Hollywood can count because anniversaries make up a hefty chunk of the excuses to trot out old pictures. Anniversary used to mean a celebration of a classic made 25 or 50 years ago, but that notion has been taken to extremes,  so any year seems fair game, 20th, 45th now pretty common.

But anniversary was not in the main the driving force last year. Some pretty big fish were summoned from the vaults to work their magic. The original Avatar (2009)  brought in another $76 million worldwide – positioning it just outside the global top 50 for 2022. Interstellar (2014) knocked up another $72 million, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) $45 million, Leonardo DiCaprio in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) worth an extra $14.8 million and the original Jurassic Park (1993) added $10 million to the coffers.

What must have seemed like nothing short of frantic experiment clearly struck a chord with audiences, so studios are taking to the reissue on a regular basis.

For a time it was Casablanca (1942) that had been the unexpected filler of the St Valentine’s Day gap. But it could hardly compete with Titanic, but rather than lose the opportunity for another annual outing, this has been re-scheduled for the beginning of March.

In April there will be a further chance – in a genuine 25th anniversary big bang- to see Jeff Bridges and John Goodman in the Coen Bros cult favorite The Big Lebowski (1998). Musical Grease (1978) – 45th anniversary? – with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John is the May pick. Hardly an unusual notion this, Grease has already had more than its fair share of reissues.

You might think it’s Travolta again in June, in Hairspray (2007), but actually it’s the John Waters original, made in 1988 – 35th anniversary!! – that became the basis of the Broadway musical. It boasts an all-time cracker of a cast – Sonny Bono (of Sonny & Cher fame), Divine (Pink Flamingos, 1972), pop star Debbie Harry (Videodrome, 1983) of Blondie, future talk show host Ricki Lake in her movie debut, and comic Jerry Stiller (father of Ben).

For the holidays what could be better than a 40th anniversary outing for National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983). Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo fire up their engines for July and look out for Eugene Levy, John Candy, Jane Krakowski and Christie Brinkley in small parts.

It’s a straight-out 50th anniversary slam-dunk for Enter the Dragon (1973), the kung fu actioner that cemented Bruce Lee’s reputation and sent the world into a brief glorious paroxysm of kung fu exploitation vehicles that even impinged on James Bond. Catch it in August.

You’d never guess it’s 35 years since Rain Man (1988), but don’t worry that will surely form the main plank of the marketing for its revival in September. Tom Cruise is of course still a big noise, less so Dustin Hoffman and director Barry Levinson, but they both won the Oscar, and fans of Hans Zimmer (Oscar nominated) will be more than happy to celebrate the score that brought him worldwide attention.

There’s been more than enough publicity attached to the filming of The Birds (1963), what with Tippi Hedren’s accusations of her treatment, but this 60th anniversary re-release might provide opportunity to reassess what I consider to be Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. That’s out in October.

Al Pacino’s turn as Cuban gangster Tony Montana in Brian DePalma’s Scarface (1983) – 40th anniversary – was not a huge hit at the time, audiences too easily put off by the violence and the over-the-top performance, but it’s now become a cult classic so expect big numbers to turn out in November.

Rounding out the year, unless someone can come up with something bigger/better before then, is A Christmas Story (1983) – 40th anniversary. You’ve probably forgotten all about this unless you can remember this is where the iconic “tongue frozen to flagpole” idea originated. Directed by Bob Clark, perhaps in reparation for Porky’s (1981), it sees Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977) as the mother appalled her son wants a BB gun for Xmas. Wonder how that idea will play out these days!

I am already trawling through any film made in a year ending in 4 or 9 to see what Hollywood can base an anniversary re-showing on for 2024.

Oldies Every Day of the Week

In the 1960s you could watch old films in the cinema in virtually every country in the world every day of the week. Except in the United States, television had not impacted so much on the availability for booking films made within the last decade, so there was generally plenty of scope to operate a picture house that specialized in old movies. They were called “repertory” theaters. Of course studios dipped in and out of the repertory business themselves, yanking out of the vaults old blockbusters, but on an irregular basis, that particular supply rapidly diminishing as old movies were sold off for small screen presentation. 

Pre-television, in the United States in the 1940s a small industry had grown up, both in distribution and exhibition, either buying up the rights to old movies and recycling them as instituted by the Producers’ Releasing Corporation and Realart and PRC or establishing mini-chains of cinemas like the Academy of Proven Hits. But when television made such big inroads into old stock in the U.S. you were more likely to find old pictures turning up in arthouses, and even then that was limited to known attractions like Garbo and Bogart and occasional retrospectives of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Or arthouses would slip in a series of oldies one day a week.

In the 1960s “no cinema in the United States except the Thalia in New York and the Cinema Guild in Berkeley has ever made a serious attempt at presenting cinema repertory.” Occasionally, a U.S. distributor acquired a bundle of old pictures as the basis of an ongoing program distributed through arthouses, such as the 27-film series from Janus or Tom Brandon’s batch of 75. Paris, on the other hand, was a paradise for lovers of old movies. 

The 1960s saw the beginning of the film studies phenomenon, so cinemas showing old movies found new custom. Prior to that, the most common way to view classics was via a film society, another booming sector. While boasting four million members worldwide, access was limited to one movie – in 16mm not 35mm – a week for one screening only and a program that ran for about half a year.

Surprisingly, Britain was at the forefront of the repertory industry. When I was growing up in Glasgow in the 1960s I was astonished to discover a commercial chain – the Classic – operating three cinemas in the city center. Two of the operations, the Classic Grand and the Tatler Classic, while retaining the company name gradually shifted into the sexploitation business, the latter as a private members’ club. But the flagship Classic, just down the road from the Odeon, one of the city’s most prestigious houses, ran a weekly program of old films.

Realart reissue from the 1940s.

At the start of the decade, Classic operated ten cinemas in London and another 80-plus  throughout the United Kingdom. Programmes changed midweek if showing just one film while a double bill would run a full week. Several cinemas ran late night screenings, usually on a Saturday, but these could also be found on a Wednesday or Thursday.

Sometimes the movies shown were foreign, other times there might be a short season of Marx Bros comedies or Hitchcock thrillers, but mostly they were British or American pictures whose quality or reputation suggested they deserved repeat viewing on the big screen. One print would be enough to feed the entire system, shunted from screen to screen.

Quite a few of the films would be hired on a flat fee basis, no sharing the box office with a distributor or studio. Older audiences, fed up with the sex and violence prevalent in current movies, took refuge in safer, older films. Younger audiences, wanting to catch up with great films, found the screenings an unexpected bounty, especially to see them projected in their original dimensions.

Just how old the offerings were varied. In 1968 over the period March 10-April 6 the youngest film presented on the Classic chain was Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the oldest Animal Crackers (1930), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Carol Reed’s The Stars Look Down (1940) and The Song of Bernadette (1943). In between you could choose between The Third Man (1949), Barbara Stanwyck as The Cattle Queen of Montana (1951), Viva Zapata (1952), The Brides of Dracula (1960), Billy Liar (1963), The Birds (1963), The Pawnbroker (1964) and Peter Sellers comedy After the Fox (1966).

On the foreign front, you could sample Vilgot Sjoman’s My Sister, My Love (1966), Godard’s A Woman Is A Woman (1961), offbeat French film Do You Like Women (1964) about cannibals owning a vegetarian restaurant, and Elke Sommer and Virna Lisi in Four Kinds of Women/The Dolls (1965). It was relatively easy to structure programs to cash in on a current picture by, for example, Peter Sellers or Marlon Brando or directors such as Alfred Hitchcock or Carol Reed.

By the 1970s repertory cinema was booming in America, 400 theaters in operation, major cities accommodating several, while in Britain the Classic chain was acquired by the Tigon production company.

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You (McFarland, 2016) p48-49, 54, 63, 72-73, 77, 80-81, 72; Gideon Bachmann, “A New Generation of Critical Fans,” Variety, June 1, 1960, p5; Advertisement, Films and Filming, October 1961, p2;“One Night Revivals Add to Arthouse Profits,” Box Office, June 29, 1964, pA3; Gideon Bachmann, “International Film Societies Number 2,500,” Variety, April 20, 1967, p13; “Films in Repertory Set for Reade-Sterling House,” Box Office, February 8, 1965, pE5; “Brandon Lines Up Chain of 30 Arties for Medleys of Oldies and Offbeat Pix,” Variety, Septmeber 6, 1967, p5; “Repertory,” Films and Filming, April 1968, p23;“Squeeze More Coin on Last Run of Classic Films,” Variety, April 24, 1968, p7; “Classic Try Switch To Cinema Club,” Kine Weekly, February 8, 1969, p6; “Tigon Aims Complete Classic Deal by End July,” Kine Weekly, June 12, 1971, p3; Marianne Cotter, “Survival of Revival House,” Box Office, March 1, 1993, p24.

What a Product Shortage Really Meant

The product shortage is nothing new, ask the exhibitors who survived the turbulent 1960s, a decade bookended by studio financial turmoil. Already suffering from a downturn in production thanks to audiences preferring television, the business was hit by the double whammy in 1960 of the Actors Strike and the Writers Strike, which forced an unwanted hiatus on movies already in production, cut short some shooting schedules and removed others not yet in front of the cameras. For exhibitors it rendered the “shortage more acute than before.”

That resulted in the biggest cinemas in the biggest cities holding on to the biggest movies for longer. Smaller cinemas, starved of product, had no such easy fall-back. Since studios were often at war with cinemas anyway, any crisis involving production raised tempers, each blaming the other.

Spans the nation “again” this ad fails to mention.

Exhibitors claimed the shortage would be eased considerably if studios made more prints available of popular movies, rather than rationing their distribution, making cinemas wait longer in order to squeeze more money out of every layer of the food chain. Distributors (i.e. the studios) retaliated that cinemas themselves were to blame for the logjam that stifled the opening of new movies and therefore created a shortage further down the line. By retaining  pictures for months, they prevented new movies entering the distribution system. “Theaters aren’t available for top product at a time when film companies are looking for outlets.”

Reissues which might have offered a solution were not considered the guaranteed source of income they would be after the James Bond revival bonanza kicked in mid-decade after Dr No/From Russia with Love. Richard Lederer of Warner Bros blamed cinemas – “refusing to yield additional coin” – for old movies ending up on television in the first place.

Others argued that television screening was incidental. RCIP Corp took a lease on films already shown on television, such as Republic oldies Wake of the Red Witch (1948), Rio Grande (1950), and The Quiet Man (1952) and positioned them to play a role in filling in, tacked on as the support to a new film, presented as matinees or occasionally topping a bill at the start of the week. Using oldies in this fashion allowed cinemas to retain the traditional twice-weekly change, and some cinemas just went the whole hog and put together an entire month’s program of reissues.

Hot box office in its first few weeks of a revival at the Warner in London’s Leicester Square.

Whoever was to blame, it put both sides under greater pressure with exhibitors increasingly turning to foreign product to fill the gap, a move that could in the long term inhibit U.S. production.

In Britain, where the two biggest chains Odeon and ABC controlled the most lucrative cinemas, reissues were a last resort, the former circuit rarely taking that option.

Between 1958 and 1963, ABC screened only two revivals – Strangers on a Train (1951) and East of Eden (1955) – whereas during the same period Odeon got through 75. In the 1950s Odeon used revivals as the support to prop up a weaker main feature, but by the 1960s the older pictures were the main attraction. The number of revivals presented as the top draw went from five in 1961 to 13 in 1962 and 11 in 1963 (i.e. 20 per cwent of the annual output), with others pulled in as the supporting feature.

Among the movies accorded a second outing were On the Waterfront (1954), The Jolson Story (1946), The Vikings (1958), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Trapeze (1956), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Red River (1948) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Odeon also took advantage of the product gap to bring back relatively recent top performers, Swiss Family Robinson (1961), Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), Psycho (1960) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) within a year or so of their original release.

Although there was no sharp increase in movie production during the 1960s and to some extent successful double bill revivals and the retention of hit films like The Family Way (1966) and The Dirty Dozen (1967) for an extra week alleviated any shortfalls, by the end of the decade it was the circuits who came down heavy on the studios.

Films that looked as if they would do poorly on their circuit release were unceremoniously yanked off screens at the start of the week (movies at that time ran from Monday to Saturday) and replaced with something else.

Films that failed to cut the box office ice on the circuits included: Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) with Dean Martin and Kim Novak, Disney’s Monkeys Go Home (1967) starring Maurice Chevalier, thriller Games (1967) starring James Caan and Katharine Ross, Maureen O’Hara in romantic Italian-set drama The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965), thriller Brainstorm (1965) with Jeffrey Hunter, Rod Taylor in the adaptation of the Arthur Hailey bestseller Hotel (1967) and British television comedian Charlie Drake in Mister Ten Per Cent (1967).

SOURCES: “Strike Worsened Shortage Beef,” Variety, March 16, 1960, p15; “Flood of Dubs If Shortage Worsens,” Variety, March 23, 1960, p14; “Product Shortage Ends Twice-Weekly Changing,” Variety, May 11, 1960, p7; “Product Shortage Prompts Theatermen Renting of TV-Exposed Features,” Variety, May 18, 1960, p17; “Print Shortage Not Product,” Variety, September 7, 1960, p5; “How Come So Resistive To Reissues While Hollering Shortage?” Variety, February 20, 1963, p15; Gene Arneel, “Distribs: Theater Shortage,” Variety, March 6, 1963, p7; Allen Eyles, ABC The First Name in Entertainment (CTA, 1993) p121-125; Allen Eyles, Odeon Cinemas 2 (CTA, 2005) p204-214.

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.

Riding the Bond Reissue Bandwagon

The 60th Anniversary celebration of the James Bond phenomenon in British cinemas that has been running for a few months now sent me back to examine the extent of the James Bond Reissue Double Bill.

As I mentioned a few weeks back, the Dr No (1962)/From Russia with Love (1963) revival in 1965 kicked off the biggest-ever demand for a screen character, one of whom the public never seemed to grow tired, certainly for the next decade until the first of the series were sold to television. Prior to United Artists’ approach with the Bonds, unless a picture had Oscar-driven box office power it would not even be considered for revival for around seven years, considered a generation in audience terms.

In Britain, the movies were guaranteed circuit releases on the Odeon chain. However, contrary to the approach in the United States, the movies were not thrown back into circulation right away and it wasn’t until three years later that the next double bill – Goldfinger (1964)/Thunderball (1965) – put in an appearance. But thereafter, there was no stopping the Bond bandwagon. In 1969 You Only Live Twice (1967) went out with either From Russia with Love or Dr No (cinemas could choose their preferred pairing).

In 1970, United Artists took a break from the Sean Connery reissue business by concentrating on the studio’s other big male star Clint Eastwood, doubling up For A Few Dollars More (1965) with A Fistful of Dollars (1964).  But by 1971 it experimented with playing Connery and Eastwood together, first pairing You Only Live Twice/A Fistful of Dollars and later the same year Goldfinger/For a Few Dollars More. But in 1972 the studio reverted to type with Thunderball/Dr No and the following year Diamonds Are Forever (1971)/From Russia with Love.

In 1974 it was You Only Live Twice/Thunderball and  few months later Dr No/Goldfinger. Come 1975 it was time for two of the later offerings to enter the revival business – Live and Let Die (1973) and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) followed at the end of the year by The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) and Live and Let Die. The next year brought a programme change – Diamonds Are Forever teamed up with new Bond Roger Moore in the non-Bond adventure Gold (1974).

In 1977, for the first time in nearly a decade the Bond reissue was absent from British cinemas although the following year saw a re-teaming of Live and let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun. But that pretty much spelled the end of the annual James Bond double bill, television by now too quickly eating up new product.

The British approach was almost conservative compared to the way the Bond revivals were handled in the US. After the sensational performance of Dr No/From Russia with Love in 1965 U.S. exhibitors had to wait only a year for Goldfinger/Dr No. United Artists showed little restraint, following a policy of “play them till they drop,” and launching the Connery/Eastwood combo in 1968 with You Only Live Twice/The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1967) plus a straightforward Connery item Thunderball/From Russia with Love the same year followed by Goldfinger/Dr No in 1969.

In the U.S. the year of the missing Bond reissue was 1970. But in 1971 United Artists reissued two Bond dualers six months apart. First out was Thunderball/You Only Live Twice and then Dr No/From Russia with Love. Ahead of the television premiere of Goldfinger in September 1972, UA brought back Goldfinger/From Russia with Love and then the triple bill (“Spend a Night with James Bond!”) of Goldinger/Dr No/From Russia with Love plus a double bill of Thunderball/You Only Live Twice, the last program incidentally knocking up a colossal gross of $122,000 – equivalent to $853,000 now – from 14 houses in New York in its opening week.

But the bonanza came to an end when television ponied up $17.5 million – equivalent to $126 million today – for the first seven pictures in the series. And this was before residuals kicked in from VHS, television resale and syndication, DVD, cable and streaming. Even when the MCU can guarantee billion-dollar revenues from many of its movies it’s doubtful if any one of its blockbusters made as much money as the best of the Bonds in their lifetime, much of that extra revenue coming from the way the revivals proved the enduring popularity of the series.  

SOURCES: Allen Eyles, Odeon Cinemas 2: From J. Arthur Rank to the Multiplex (Cinema Theatre Association, 2005) p211-220; Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You (McFarland, 2016) p147-151, 175-177, 227.

Humphrey Bogart: 1960s Revival Champ

When Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954) was reissued in 1963 the star attraction was undoubtedly Audrey Hepburn, hot after Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Charade (1963), rather than William Holden, tumbling down the box office charts, or Humphrey Bogart, six years deceased. When the film was reissued two years later on the back of an even hotter Hepburn after My Fair Lady (1964), Bogart was assuredly the star. What happened in between was one of the oddest twists in motion picture history and one that would turn the actor into the biggest revival star of the 1960s.

But if you were to select the Bogart picture most likely to reignite public interest in the star, it would not be John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953), a flop on initial release and by 1965 for legal reasons never shown on television. But in one of those quirks of programming the old Bogart found a new lease of life. Opening in spring 1964 at the 250-seat Avenue Cinema in New York it racked up $7,000 – equivalent to $65,000 today, totting up $30,000 ($279,000 equivalent) in a six-week run – phenomenal amounts for such a small venue. It shifted over to the 55th St Playhouse where it remained for another four weeks. The Art Cinema chain picked it up for wider release, sending it out in its thirty-six houses with, once again, outstanding results ($7,000 in one week in Boston, $5,000 in Washington). In Philadelphia it ran simultaneously in two houses.

In 1965 Dominant Films, part of United Artists, reissued a package of nineteen Bogart oldies, available on a rental rather than fixed price basis, and bookings were conditional on cinemas undertaking a two-week engagement, one film for the whole fortnight or the entire supply over the period, or any kind of program arrangement in between. There was no shortage of takers, especially after it became known that the 8th St Playhouse in New York, generally a second-run arthouse, and the 495-seat Carnegie in Chicago had each seen receipts hit the $10,000 ($93,000 equivalent) mark. The former double-billed fourteen pictures from the selection available, switching programs every two days.

Demand for the program was so high, prints were rationed. In the next fourteen cinemas on the release schedule, venues were allocated a maximum of six movies over the two-week period, sometimes limited to just two. When it became obvious that this gold mine was being given away too cheaply, a new strategy emerged: weekly double bills. In what amounted to a Humphrey Bogart greatest hits package the Carnegie in Chicago cleared nearly $15,000 ($139,000 equivalent) over three consecutive weeks with the following programs: The Petrified Forest (1936)/Key Largo (1948), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)/Casablanca (1942), and The Maltese Falcon (1941)/High Sierra (1951).

These grosses were even more astonishing in light of the fact that nearly all his seventy-five pictures were available on television, free of charge, on constant rerun, demand highest in the late-late slot. In 1966, United Artists Associates, a division of UA TV, referred to its portfolio of forty-five Warner Brothers features as “the most significant phenomenon of this era of entertainment history” It was estimated that screenings of his movies totalled two hundred per year.

Although there had been sporadic screenings of golden oldies in the U.S., exhibitors did not appear to share the same penchant for classics. Certainly, the U.S. lagged behind Europe in that respect. Wuthering Heights (1939), a huge rerun favourite in Europe, in 1963 in Paris attracted 30,000 admissions in three days in a trio of cinemas. In February 1963 half the cinemas in the French capital were given over to classics.

The most successful classics operator in the U.S. was MGM which in the early 1960s set up the Perpetual Program Plan. Investing in new prints of MGM oldies and a distinct marketing plan, the studio offered a package on an innovative basis. Rather than tying cinemas down to one-week or two-week contracts, as would be standard for arthouses, and therefore limiting potential bookings over fears that audience demand would peter out after a few days, MGM had hit on the idea of showing the films once a week on the same day of the week – Wednesday the most popular – for a season of six-eight weeks. Patrons could book a “season ticket” to see all the films. This approach made it far more appealing to the ordinary cinema, rather than the arthouse specialist, since a special showing could lift the midweek quiet period.

The first offerings from the Perpetual Program Plan were “Golden Operettas” – Rose Marie (1936), The Merry Widow (1934), The Great Waltz (1938), Sweethearts (1938), The Chocolate Soldier (1941) and The Student Prince (1954). The package played in over 3,500 cinemas. Expecting little more than $60 for their Wednesday income, cinemas found themselves taking in $300-$900 a night. The Chocolate Soldier could bring in as much as $2,200 a night, The Student Prince $1,500. MGM followed up with a program of films based on famous books such as Little Women (1949) and a third package revolved around musicals like Singing’ in the Rain (1952) and The Bandwagon (1953).  

The Humphrey Bogart concept was a considerable step up from this once-a-week program. The Bogart craze reached its commercial height in 1967. But there was one Bogart picture that audiences had been denied a showing for a decade. The African Queen (1952) had been made by British company Romulus and distributors had been put off taking up an option to show it due to a technical issue with the color prints. The impetus for its revival was the tenth anniversary of Bogart’s death, an event that stimulated an avalanche of newspaper articles and books. Producer Sam Spiegel sold reissue rights for The African Queen to Trans-Lux, a small arthouse chain in expansion mode planning to move into distribution. When the Los Angeles Times held a poll to identify the oldie most moviegoers wanted to see, The African Queen topped the poll. The buzz surrounding Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) created massive interest in the picture’s co-star Katharine Hepburn.

It was no surprise that The African Queen launched – in November 1967 – at a New York arthouse, the 600-seat Trans-Lux East, but the box office blew the industry away. An opening week of close on $20,000 ($186,000 equivalent) put the oldie into the cinema’s all-time top ten. What was astonishing was that it received as many bookings outside the expected release route of arthouses and the college circuit and was taken up by local theaters all over the country, shown in four houses in San Mateo, for example. It formed double and triple bills with other Bogart films, as well as The Quiet Man (1952) and topped bills that included films like Waterhole 3 (1967). After the first flush of first run and nabes, it turned up as support to contemporary pictures like Dark of the Sun (1968) and underwent another revival in 1969 before being sold to television in 1970.

SOURCE: Brian Hannan, Coming Back To A Theater Near You; A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016) p127-133, 198-206.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan News

The latest news on and the WordPress community.