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.
It’s only according to film historians and movies like Babylon (2022) that the transition to sound in 1927 was instantaneous. Maybe from a contorted academic perspective, but not for audiences and not for exhibitors. That The Jazz Singer (1927) proved momentous required not one revolution, but two. For it was responsible for nothing less than the beginnings of the wide release.
There had been sporadic attempts at day-dating, day-and-date, simultaneous openings, saturation bookings, whatever you wanted to call it, from 1913 to 1920. You might find an occasional picture released all at once into 20 houses in New York, but more likely it was a picture that showed up on two or three screens in Detroit, San Francisco or St Louis. In 1921 there were 300 day-and-date bookings for Chaplin’s The Kid with 70 prints allocated to New York and 40 to Chicago. But wide release remained rare.
In 1924 in Cleveland 65 nabes signed up to day-date Let Not Man Put Asunder and First National attempted to interest 100 theaters in day-dating Lilies of the Field. In 1927 MGM promoted Greta Garbo-John Gilbert in Love as opening, without specific dates, in “approximately” 100 theaters while Fox claimed 90 had signed up for Colleen Moore in Her Wild Oat (1927).
However, “simultaneous” was widely open to interpretation, not necessarily meaning day-dating. The kind of release system we know today remained rare and sporadic. Wide release did not take off because there was no reason for it to do so.
While The Jazz Singer single-handedly thrust Warner Brothers into the higher echelons of the industry, it did not herald a tidal wave of talkies. Despite its success, the jury was still out – was it a gimmick or a revolution? Without the complications of sound, movies were a $1.5 billion ($25 billion today) business and the idea that theater owners would cotton on to the potential of sound and rush to become “wired” was soon demolished. Predictions of 350 sound installations by the end of 1927 proved wildly optimistic, less than 100 theaters obliging.
Exhibitor antipathy could be laid in large part at the studio door. Owners had to pay the cost of changing to sound – plus a weekly royalty to Vitaphone of 10 cents per seat – with no guarantee that the trend would last or, more importantly, that it would iron out existing inequalities. Studios and exhibitors were at war. Exhibitor anger against studios was demonstrated by the volume of complaints to the 32 Film Boards of Trade, over 23,000 in 1925-26 – more than one for every theater in existence – wrongs righted to the tune of $4.6 million in damages.
The studios had their own complaints against exhibitors: of the $650 million paid by the public for theater tickets in 1926, only $185 million found its way into their coffers as rentals, around 28 per cent of the gross, remarkably low by modern standards. With profit margins on film production hovering around 15 per cent, studios, preparing to invest $159 million in movies in the 1927-1928 season, could be forgiven for believing they were taking all the risk, with exhibitors hiving off so much profit they could afford more – $250 million – in theater construction.
Exhibition was a sore point for studios since they had so little share of it. By the end of 1926, they owned around five percent of the total. Neither studio-owned chains nor independent circuits had anything approaching a monopoly, or even a dominant share, most being regional-based rather than nationwide. The biggest theaters were the most important. Super-theaters on Broadway and big city downtown areas could charge $2.20 admission compared to the national average of 28-35 cents. In 1927, 68 of these behemoths generated a total of $47 million ($790 million in today’s figures), the 5,450-seat Capitol in New York alone nabbing $2.7 million ($45 million).
The traditional method of releasing silent features depended on, effectively, withholding them. Each sector of exhibition obediently waited its turn while competition for new pictures between rival exhibitors served to stoke bids. The release system was littered with gaps of up to three weeks clearance, during which movies did not play at all as they worked their way down the ladder, this being the accepted method to ensure that the public still flocked to the more expensive houses rather than holding off till they turned up in a cheaper nabe, the waiting theaters prohibited from even advertising in advance such forthcoming attractions in local newspapers.
Studios also used hits as a way of enticing theater owners to commit to annual contracts. In theory, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles would get the biggest movies first. In reality, because big hits were allowed to run as long as first run theaters wanted them, it was virtually impossible to arrange the simultaneous release, on any scale, of a new feature. The long runs were permitted in part because of the grosses that could be achieved and in part because the amount of money taken in first run was the measure by which rental rates were set for further down the line.
A movie that ran for months at top prices (“a $2 hit”) in New York would attract higher rental prices in smaller cities than one lasting a week or two. Some runs were exceptional: The Big Parade (1925) and Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ (1925) ran on Broadway for a year, Mare Nostrum (1926) and The Scarlet Letter (1926) for seven months, The Merry Widow (1925) for six months and La Boheme (1926) for four months.
Even had studios desired it, length of run, dictated by different exhibitor circumstances and public reaction in various cities, conspired to make simultaneous first run openings well nigh impossible. Fifteen cities constituted the peak of movie first run box office in 1926: Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Providence, San Francisco and Washington.
But it proved impossible throughout that year for a single picture to complete a run in all of these cities. The Big Parade opened in New York, Los Angeles and Washington on the same day, January 2, but in no other city in this list that year, its simultaneous opening therefore limited to just 20 per cent of first run in these major cities. Ben Hur also opened on January 2 in New York but did not reach Philadelphia, its only other port of call that year, until June. Aloma of the Seven Seas managed 80 per cent penetration, but it was a lengthy enterprise, beginning on May 22 in New York and ending on November 20 in Washington. The Sea Beast opened in only six cities within a four-month period.
So it was entirely feasible that, following the combined restraints imposed by both exhibitors and studios, The Jazz Singer may have taken as long as any of these features to traverse the country and still, within year of its premiere, not been seen in all the major cities. In the first few post-premiere months, only three of the key fifteen cities showed it.
So a movie that was a sensation in New York remained a New York sensation only. There was nothing immediate, as film scholars have suggested, as regards the rest of the nation’s audiences and exhibitors.
However, Warner Brothers, using the prospect of immediate payback to entice theater owners to install sound, broke with tradition and unleashed an unprecedented release onslaught.
In so doing, the studio invented the modern wide release.
In March 1928 The Jazz Singer opened simultaneously in 235 theaters natonwide. But that was not all that was revolutionary. For a start, exhibitors had to contract to pay a percentage of the receipts, on a sliding scale from week one, rather than a flat rental. Secondly, the studio dictated the length of run, rather than the exhibitor, Warner Brothers demanding a minimum eight-week run. Thirdly, the studio expanded the initial day-and-date idea into second- and third-run bookings, triggering a series of simultaneous multiple releases in the nabes. After first runs were completed, large numbers of nabes took part in wider day-dating programs, in Philadelphia, for example, after twelve weeks in first run, twenty other houses throughout the city lined up for simultaneous wide release, a situation repeated across the country. Fourthly, those theaters way down the release chain that normally played a split week had to commit to a full weeks.
In one fell swoop, Warner Brothers challenged the existing order. Multiple release meant that studios would no longer be held to ransom by giant picture houses determining not just when a major movie played but, unintentionally perhaps, the restrictions that followed in its wake. By dictating minimum length of run, Warner Brothers took back control of “exclusive” engagements. Clearance stipulated that the theater at the top of the release hierarchy had exclusive rights to exhibition and could hold onto the movie for as long as it wished. Obviously, studios were not averse to this as the biggest theaters attracted the biggest audiences. But if a movie was a sensation, the studio could not cash in on media attention by yanking it from downtown and sending it out wider while public interest was at a peak.
With The Jazz Singer, Warner Brothers guaranteed exclusivity, but on its terms. A big city first run theater had to cede control over length of run in order to show the picture. On the other hand theaters all over America would have access to new movies in a way that, heretofore, had been virtually forbidden. The arrival of sound spurred studios to shorten release patterns and widen openings in order to reassure those installing the new equipment that it was going to be worthwhile and, also, that they would not have to wait ages to receive a return on their investment.
Simultaneous opening became the way forward both in first run and in nabes, the size of saturation varying enormously from those who topped The Jazz Singer theater count to those who came nowhere near, and not just for sound. In fact, The Jazz Singer saturation record barely lasted a month, beaten by new silent comedy Speedy starring Harold Lloyd at Easter in 250 theaters nationwide.
The main limitation to simultaneous opening was the shortage of prints. Studios and independents produced 800 pictures a year and the average life of a print was 59 showings (around 100 working days). Typically, an ordinary feature would require 150, increasing to 200-250 for studio “specials,” roadshows receiving 300-plus (although this included prints for overseas), so, annually, a studio might have upwards of 7,500 prints of new films in circulation. With prints costing 4 cents per foot, around $280 for a seven-reel movie, Hollywood’s annual expenditure was in the millions.
Sound necessitated an increase in prints. Availability rather than restricted access was key, so studios were forced to place sound pictures in those houses which could play them, and that incurred a faster play-off than before. But since relatively few cinemas were wired, movies appeared in silent and sound versions. For Two Lovers (1928) starring Ronald Colman only 55 of the 320 prints were specified as sound, a similar ratio for DeMille’s King of King.
By now, whether exhibitors were complicit or not, studios were committed to sound, having set aside $5 million for sound stages, although, in cautious contradiction, leasing equipment rather than buying it. For the 1928-1929 season Paramount scheduled up to 50 movies with synchronized sound, Warner Brothers 30, of which five (Lights of New York, The Desert Song, The Terror, Conquest and Home Towners) would be all-talkie, First National 31, and Universal nine. MGM and Columbia were slower to respond, MGM’s first talkie White Shadows in the South Seas not available till late summer 1928, Columbia’s talkie debut The Lone Wolf’s Daughter not ready until the following year
By summer 1928 only 400 theaters had switched to sound – barely four percent of the total – hardly suggesting a revolution had taken hold. In some areas, the availability of sound was negligible or non-existent, only five wired theaters in West Virginia, four in South Carolina, three in Maine, Utah and Nebraska, two in Louisiana, one in Delaware, Vermont and Wyoming, but none at all in New Hampshire or Nevada.
Theaters which had managed the conversion encountered a dearth of new sound product. In an era when most theaters got through up to two hundred features a year, the bulk of what was on offer sound-wise was dominated by shorts comprising comic and dramatic monologues and dialogues or featuring bands, orchestras, and operatic or semi-operatic numbers. Talkie feature production was less straightforward than silent, considerable gaps between movies. It took Warner Brothers six months after Lights of New York to bring out another all-talking picture, The Terror, which hit Broadway as a two-a-day roadshow on August 15, 1928.
The slow uptake from exhibitors was not just due to natural caution but fear about making the wrong choice. There was a baffling array of equipment to assist in the conversion to sound, ten versions of what were termed “sound picture devices” and nearly as many “synchronization devices.” Installation cost was substantial, $2,500 for a 2,000-seater for Qualitone, for example ‘Uncertainty, unrest, indecision’ choked the business. Cities like Memphis, Minnesota and Omaha and entire areas like the northwest and the Cornbelt simply refused to countenance sound.
The impact on the existing inventory was catastrophic. Exhibitors stopped renting new films, in what amounted to a “buying strike” in 1928 especially of companies which only made silents. The boycott affected all films and continued through 1929 as exhibitors were “now wary of signing up for product too far in advance lest revolutionary developments are in store again.’
With booking paralysis threatening the industry, studios took coherent action. Warner Brothers focused on increased accessibility; ‘day-dating with Broadway’ became an integral element of Warner Brothers launches. In order to rouse theaters from their torpor, Hollywood took the unusual step of creating a generic campaign, promoting talkies to the public. ‘How to focus the attention of the public,’ was a tall order when there was ‘no precedent to fall back on.’
Studios realized theaters would be more susceptible to public pressure and in August 1928 Paramount promoted the concept of sound through “the greatest advertising campaign in the history of pictures” to the 100 million readers of 695 newspapers in 413 cities while a month later Warner Brothers launched a million-dollar advertising campaign promoting sound via 125 daily newspapers.
During 1929 other studios followed the Warner Brothers example of day-dating with Broadway and to find a way round the Broadway logjams, new movies were launched away from New York, Fox, for example, opening Sunnyside Up starring the popular duo of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell in Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis and Milwaukee long before it reached New York. United Artists’ Trespasser starring Gloria Swanson only found its way to New York after a string of bookings including Buffalo, Omaha, Atlanta, Detroit and Cincinnati. Paramount “pre-released” Close Harmony (‘Hear Charles Buddy Rogers and Nancy Carroll Sing and the Whole Cast Talk!’) in five cities, but not Chicago and New York.
Exasperated by exhibitor inertia regarding sound, which had threatened to throttle the burgeoning technology, and wishing a bigger share of the overall pie, studios had also embarked on a theater-buying spree, acquiring both first run theaters and chains of nabes, the “Big Six” studios now in control of 3,800 houses.
But in 1929 Warner Brothers remained king of the wide release, setting a new simultaneous multiple release opening record, the 558 theaters involved in the launch of Queen of the Night Clubs ‘on or about March 16’ more than doubling the previous high-water mark. And it charged ahead with unprecedented numbers of simultaneous openings to satisfy demand (5,000 houses wired by August, 43 per cent using Vitaphone), maintain its position as the market leader in sound, build market share, drive up its stock price, and to capitalize on profits from the exhibition sector now that the company had invested more in that field.
But it had taken a full two years since The Jazz Singer for the industry to reach a turning point. The schedules for 1929-1930 revealed that for the first time the production of talkies outweighed that of silents, 504 vs. 403. Such volumes would more than satisfy the needs of the average theater.
So, yes, the slowest recorded revolution in history. And it took another revolution in wide release to make it possible.
SOURCE: Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere, A History of the Hollywood Wide Release, 1913-2017 (McFarland, 2019) p11-21. There are over 100 references for these pages so I’m not going to print them all here. You can get them in the book if you so desire.
Wild raucous’n’roll rollercoaster that, contrary to expectation, I found totally absorbing, length not an issue. Employing a simple structure of rise and fall, and exploring the upside and downside of Hollywood in the transition from silent to sound, it seemed to me in essence to capture movie-making. A Broadway play could be a hit if seen by 100,000 people, that size of audience constituting a flop for a movie, but the play was viewed by 100,000 of the “right” people, the moneyed elite who could afford the tickets, a movie by the flotsam and jetsam that made up the majority of the American population even when, theoretically, the country was going through the boom times of the “Jazz Age.”
Most films and books concentrate on the downside, the battle to get to the top, the seamy undercurrent, the inevitable collapse, but none capture the giddy heights like this. Silent movies were viewed primarily as technical, nobody had to even talk, much less learn lines or spout Shakespeare. Initially, the stars were drawn from vaudeville so had some proven talent but then it was clear anyone could become a star, such as here Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), or a producer like Manny Torres (Diego Calva) by simply being in the right place at the right time, initiating a gold rush to Los Angeles.
Just as there is no single reason for the camera and audience to turn a person into a star, the same applies when they fall out of favor. In a movie thankfully given little to long lectures on filmmaking beyond aspirations to “form” and wanting to do something good, the best explanation about how/why careers end is delivered in dry tones by columnist Elinor St John (Jean Smart) to disillusioned out-of-favor Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt).
The narrative shuttles between Conrad, LaRoy and Torres, interweaving the lives of trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), Conrad’s multiple wives, LaRoy’s hapless father (Eric Roberts), director Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton) studio wunderkind Irving Thalberg (Max Minghella), publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (Pat Skipper), gangster James McKay (Tobey Maguire) and imperious director Otto (Spike Jonze). Excess is the name of the game whether ostentatious consumption Hollywood-style or the more sedate black tie dinners of caviar and lobster enjoyed by the elite.
The elite looked down their noses on a new class of wealthy individuals who were ill-educated, didn’t talk proper, but had struck gold simply from being able to stand in front of a camera without being able to tell their Ibsen from their Shakespeare and didn’t understand art.
Surprisingly, this is a pretty good comedy, slapstick sometimes but excelling at setting up visual jokes, though audiences might recoil from a rare reliance on elephant ordure and vomit. Some scenes are pure standout: Nellie’s first talk scene where the sound engineer has tyrannical control; Nellie’s fight with the snake; Manny’s race to find a camera before the director loses the light; the uncontrolled venom of battle scenes; the black Sidney not black enough; and of course the various wild parties although nothing in the Hollywood imagination could match the depravity of one where Manny is the unwilling guest of gangster McKay, as if fiction cannot match reality.
Of course, people who have everything rarely know what they actually want and spend their lives throwing away what they have in pursuit of the unattainable, so Conrad is apt to view wives as disposable, Nellie finds relief in drugs and gambling, Manny’s obsession with Nellie which should lead to ruin paradoxically by happenstance brings him happiness. The rampant unchecked hedonism that runs through the picture could well just be a metaphor for the helter-skelter modus operandi of the movies, enjoy it while you’re hot, cram in as much as you can, because, heaven knows, something from left field (sound, for example) could dramatically upend everything.
Brad Pitt (Bullet Train, 2022) is very good as the often drunk but generally streetwise star. You can hardly take your eyes off Margot Robbie (Amsterdam, 2022), not just for her brazen sexuality, but her ability to cry on cue, awareness of her self-destructive personality, inherited from self-destructive parents, greedy idiotic father, mother committed to an upmarket mental institution. Diego Calva (Beautiful Losers, 2021) is good in a less showy part. Interesting cameos abound.
This has the intensity of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) rather than the cleverness of La La Land (2016).
I mentioned in my review of Tar that it could have done with a stronger producer to cut down on the running times and some elements I felt were bound to alienate audiences. I would make the same suggestion here, though not so forcefully. Elephant shit and urination are always, I reckon, going to be a major turn-off for audiences. While I had no trouble with the length, that’s clearly been an issue and it would hardly be a problem for a decent editor to snip chunks out of party scenes or eliminate non-essential characters.
Emotionally and artistically this seems to me to capture the essence of the formative days of Hollywood before the double whammy of the Great Depression and the Hays Code brought about a systematic rethink with studios insisting their stars take more care hiding their proclivities from general view.