The Box Office Equalizer: Part Three

Trade magazine Variety’s innovative weekly Top 50 based on grosses that had begun in April 1969 changed the way exhibitors regarded box office. Instead of waiting till the appearance of the magazine’s year-end round-up which was limited to around the top 100 movies, cinema owners now got a week-by-week snapshot of how new movies were playing. All box office figures had previously concentrated on the big movies of the day – the roadshows and pictures with big stars – that opened at the first run city center houses that were easier for Variety to track. The switch to a computerized system made it more feasible to examine the takings from hundreds of cinemas not necessarily showing the big movies sucking up all the publicity oxygen.  

An examination of the films hitting the coveted number one position in the weekly chart illuminated the changes in the business. For a start, to reach number one a movie had to be showing on over 30 cinemas, but this could rise to 100-plus, and began to show the benefits of the wider first run release. This was also really the beginning of the per-screen average.  High figures could be achieved by recruiting a large number of screens but exhibitors could easily disseminate the information and decide whether the number of screens massaged the figures or showed how successful a film really was. And this was the start of another promotional ploy, the business of a movie holding onto to the top spot for a second, third or even fourth week, proof a movie had “legs.”

The Year’s weekly Top Ten performers make interesting reading. The biggest figures posted in any one week during 1969 were for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service which hauled in a massive $1.22 million (equivalent to $9.6 million today) from 99 screens – a $12,323 screen average. This was followed by Goodbye, Columbus with $935,000 from 65 screens, a higher screen average of $14,384. Next came The Love Bug with $724,000 from 76 houses ($9,526 average). Another week of Goodbye, Columbus shouldered $681,000 from 60 ($11,350).

The Love Bug had a further two weeks at the top, pinching $658,000 from 117 ($5,623) and $633,000 from 44 ($14,386).  Seventh-best week was taken by The Killing of Sister George with $621,000 from 70 ($8,871). Snatching eighth spot was Fanny Hill with $625,000 from 49 ($12,755). Ninth was Krakatoa, East of Java with $621,000 from 68 ($9,132). Last place in the top ten went to I Am Curious, Yellow with $594,000 from 52 ($11,423).

From the exhibitor perspective there were two notable points. The first was the per-screen average. Secondly, cinema bookers could not fail to notice not only that two of the top ten in weekly gross and three of the top five films in terms of screen averages went to sexploitation pictures.

It was soon abundantly clear that producers could sell their pictures to sometimes doubting exhibitors by the simple process, not so much of bombarding them with adverts and Pressbooks extolling a film’s potential, but of getting a movie into sufficient theatres for the box office figures to tell their own story.

Although the other big films expected to top the weekly chart did achieve that aim – among them True Grit (twice), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (also twice), Ice Station Zebra, Easy Rider (three times), Midnight Cowboy, Oliver! and Paint Your Wagon – there were as many unfancied movies perching atop the weekly pile.

Apart from the sexploitation films and The Killing of Sister George, others holding down the number one spot for a week were British star Carol White in Mark Robson thriller Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting ($544,000 from 71), What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice ($540,000 from 48), Gordon Parks’ bittersweet drama The Learning Tree ($401,000 from 49), Stella Stevens and Shelley Winters in horror film The Mad Room ($283,000 from 38) and reissues Bonnie and Clyde/Bullitt ($546,000 from 81) and The Longest Day ($501,000 from 76).

Distributors of low-budget pictures used to have to take ads out in the trades to prove to potential customers that their movies were pulling in decent business. Now they had better proof, from the most important source of all, Variety, whose box office figures were scanned by every cinema manager in the country. Once a week without a distributor putting a hand in their advertising pocket there was all the promotional evidence they needed.  

This was the second sea change in the way cinema owners perceived the business, the first being the opening up of the collection of box office figures through Variety’s annual report on upwards of 1,000 titles. To have figures at your finger tips for the price of a subscription to a newspaper was a game changer.

But there was yet another game changer to come. 

SOURCES: The Top 50 Grossers chart appearing weekly in Variety from April to December 1969.

Behind the Scenes – “Hour of the Gun” (1967)

Blame Robert Wise for falling behind on The Sand Pebbles (1966), otherwise John Sturges  would have pressed ahead with Steve McQueen pet project Day of the Champion (later resurrected as Le Mans, 1970, though minus Sturges). Needing another hit after the consecutive box office failures of The Satan Bug (1965) and The Hallelujah Trail (1965), Sturges fell back on an equally favoured project, The Law and Tombstone, a revisionist and darker look at the Wyatt Earp legend, with “a few liberties taken so it doesn’t become a documentary.” Despite the failings of the last two films, Mirisch had just re-signed Sturges, expanding his current deal from two to four pictures.

“It seemed like a first-rate idea,” recalled producer Walter Mirisch, who had worked with Sturges on The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). In his memoir he said, “If there was still a market for Western pictures, John Sturges was certainly the ideal director to test it.” (Mirisch’s memory is a bit hazy here regarding the commercial prospects for westerns – 1966 had seen box office success for El Dorado, Nevada Smith, The Professionals and The Rare Breed while 1967 would usher in The War Wagon and Hombre among others). The initial idea was to re-team Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas from Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, to which this was a sequel, but Paramount, which had made the original picture, nixed the notion.

The image for the Japanese poster was taken from the initial shootout at the O.K. Corral that opened the picture.

James Garner came on board in the main because he still owed Mirisch, marking a decade in the business, a picture. He had originally worked for Mirisch in The Children’s Hour (1961). He was hired for “not much,” a straight salary, but credited Mirisch with kick-starting his career after his battle with Warner Brothers. Mirisch had also funded By Love Possessed (1962) in which Sturges had directed Jason Robards, “a brilliant actor though one with problems” (something of an understatement).

There was some surprise in Hollywood when Sturges returned to Mexico after the difficulties – censorship, threats to boycott the film, union issues – he had encountered shooting The Magnificent Seven there. Having vowed “never to make another picture” in that country, “one of the reasons we’re back here is because they’ve eased up on regulations.” Having expected to import most of the cast from Hollywood, the producers were delighted that “six of the ten other featured parts” went to Mexicans, as a result of extensive auditions. Although Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch, 1969) remained director of cinematography, a Mexican camera crew was hired with Jorge Stahl in charge.

James Garner takes the stand in court defending himself against allegations of murder.

Shooting began on November 9, 1966, at Torreon, “a quiet little agricultural town with a single hotel and bar,” where a fake town had been built at a cost of $100,000. Filming shifted to Churusbusco Studios in Mexico City on December 20 and four weeks later production wrapped after exteriors at a hacienda near San Miguel de Allende for the face-off with Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan in the film).

James Garner (The Great Escape, 1963) was keen to be reunited with Sturges. “I was happy to play the character,” reminisced Garner, “because John always knew what he was doing. He would take five, six, seven factions in a story and bring them together.” Garner saw Earp as “a guy taken with his own power, who nobody could defy.” 

Jason Robards, as Doc Holliday, with a well-known wild side, was difficult to manage. Assistant directors were dispatched every morning to find out where, bar or brothel,  the actor had ended up the night before. Sturges rounded on him when Robards turned up at lunch for a scheduled 8am start. He was perfect after that. Unusually, Sturges would invite the cast to watch the dailies. Producers Mirisch were not happy with the title which was eventually changed to Hour of the Gun.

“My mistake,” rued Sturges, “was that I thought people would be fascinated by the real story about the quarrel between the Earps and the Clantons. You didn’t just shoot people, there were trials, lawyers, citizens’ committees…I got preview cards that said of all the stories told about Earp and Holliday this was the dullest. They (the audience) considered them fictional characters. They couldn’t have cared less that that’s the way it really was.”

As Variety pointed out in its review: “Probing too deeply into the character of folk heroes reveals them to be fallible human beings – which they are of course – but to mass audiences …such exposition is unsettling.”

Edward Anhalt’s screenplay was based on this book published in the late 1950s.

There were clearly reservations about the project. Mirisch announced it was “ready for release” at the end of March 1967 but it did not see the light of day for another seven  months. Although the film was budgeted at just over $3 million – $1 million more than In the Heat of the Night (1967), another Mirisch project – and received tremendous support from the industry-wide “Fall Film Fair” promotional campaign (“commended…for excellence in entertainment”) it was a huge flop in the U.S. bringing in a miserable $900,000 in rentals (the amount studios receive once the cinemas have taken their share of the gross). It did better abroad with $1.5 million but the total was nowhere near enough to recoup the costs.

“Also playing a large role in the reaction to the picture was the continued loss of interest by audiences in Western pictures,” said Mirisch. “I was again guilty of thinking that this trend would reverse and that Westerns, led by a hit picture, would return to favour stronger than ever. I was wrong. As a new generation arose, their interest in westers had been satiated, probably by television, and they now embraced the so-called Easy Rider era of movie-making.”

This is another piece of faulty memory. The year after the release of Hour of the Gun   commercial success was enjoyed by Bandolero!, Hang ‘Em High and The Scalphunters to name a few and Will Penny and The Stalking Moon, both revisionist westerns, won critical favour. And, apologies for harping on about it, but, as I showed in my book The Gunslingers of ’69, that year proved a box office bonanza for westerns despite Easy Rider.

SOURCES: Glenn Lovell, Escape Artist (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) p257-262; Walter Mirisch, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), p259-260; United Artists Archive, Appendix II, University of Wisconsin; “Mirisch, Sturges Revamp Pact for Two More Films,” Box Office, July 25, 1966, W-1; “James Garner Moves from Actor To Future Producer Status,” Variety,  October 5, 1966, 5; “Director John E. Sturges Returns to Mexico for Law and Tombstone,” Box Office, November 7, 1966, pW-2; “Mirisch Schedules Five Major Films,” Box Office, March 13, 1967, p10; “Film Title Changes,” Box Office, April 24, 1967, p18; Advert, Box Office, Aug 28, 1967, p4-5; Review, Variety, October 4, 1967, p16.

Book Review – Dreams of Flight: “The Great Escape” in American Film and Culture

In the history of rousing action cinema few movies are as revered or have produced such a collective cinematic response as John Sturges’ World War 2 POW picture The Great Escape (1963) starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough and a host of upcoming stars including The Magnificent Seven alumni James Coburn and Charles Bronson,  

Dana Polan’s rich assessment of the film’s making coupled with a superb analysis of the film itself, script, style, themes and directorial bravura is filled with informative nuggets. Eschewing the standard star bio approach, Polan goes much deeper to detail how earlier adaptations for American television and Australian radio (made by novelist Morris West’s company and with Rod Taylor as a German guard) affected the film, how it fitted into the British POW tradition (The Colditz Story etc) and the influence of an American offshoot like Stalag 17.

You might already be familiar with the work of Dana Polan since he has written books on Pulp Fiction, The Sopranos and Jane Campion and another half-dozen books besides. This is an excellent addition to his impressive portfolio.

Paul Brickhill, author of The Great Escape (and other war classics The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky) had been an inmate at Stalag Luft III so drew on personal experience – including that of tunnel digger – and sketches made at the time of the tunnels to turn out, as co-writer, a precursor Escape to Danger. It was either interviews relating to this or a magazine article or condensation that alerted neophyte director Sturges in 1945/1946 to a potential film. The book, published in 1950, sold a million copies in paperback in the UK alone and was a huge global success. And for independent producers Mirisch, for whom Sturges later made The Magnificent Seven, buying the rights was integral to the director’s pact with that company in 1957 and indeed The Great Escape was mooted as his debut picture for them. When finally greenlit, it was intended to be shot in the U.S. with only 10 per cent taking place in Europe. That it went the other way was due to an unusual set of circumstances.

In his analysis of the picture, Polan makes other interesting connections, first of all to the caper picture where each character has a specific task to contribute to the overall effort. Unusually for a heroic film, he points out that courage is continually undercut, each uplifting moment leading to defeat, the film itself having an essentially downbeat ending, the only true victory found in defiance. And in some respects The Great Escape created a bridge between the gung-ho war films of the 1950s and the more cynical approach to war envisioned in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.

Being British, it had never occurred to me how important the baseball glove was to American culture, the glove representing for many a “certain brand of American problem-solving in the face of adversity” although far more universally accepted would be the premise of the motorcycle escape representing the triumph of the spirit even as it results in a more down to earth resolution.

Tracing Sturges’ stylistic development back to post-WW2 B-movies made for Columbia explains the importance of the trademark parabolic shot in driving action forward. Yet for all his stylistic bravura, Sturges was very grounded when it came to the work required to make pictures, for example here adopting coloured index cards to shuffle around pieces of action to best effect.

The script went through various hands – William Roberts and Walter Newman, both integral to The Magnificent Seven, but was finally credited to crime writer W.R. Burnett (who had worked with Sturges on Sergeants 3, 1962) and James Clavell (who adapted The Satan Bug, 1965), himself a POW in a Japanese camp with British writer Ivan Moffat (Giant, 1956) coming in at the last minute as script doctor. A breakdown of the various scripts attributes the Hilts’ cooler baseball bouncing to Moffat who also wrote the scene that changed Hilts from loner to participant.

In a terrific appendix you can discover exactly the problems facing the real escapees and who came up with the book title (clue – not the author) four years after the idea originally surfaced. There’s a fascinating coda about the film’s impact on Hollywood and general culture and Polan takes time out to reflect on the experience of various fans on their virgin encounter with the picture. The movie was a big hit and so well received that when critic Bosley Crowther wrote a negative review the “New York Times” postbag was filled with complaints. Written with tremendous authority and great style, this is one book you would want to find in your Xmas stocking.

Dreams of Flight: The Great Escape in American Film and Culture by Dana Polan is published by University of California Press at $24.95 / £20 in both paperback & ebook.  ISBN 9780520379305. It is available on Amazon and Kindle.

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520379305/dreams-of-flight

Book into Film – “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965)

Richard Jessup’s brilliant 1963 novel was so short – barely 150 pages – it was almost custom-made for the movies. While it built up the tension to the confrontation between young stud poker contender The Cincinnati Kid (Steve McQueen in the film) and the reigning world champ Lancey Hodges (Edward G. Robinson) and covered the on-off relationship between the Kid and Christian (Tuesday Weld), a large chunk of the novel was in effect an insider’s guide to the world of poker and its unwritten rules.

As appeared always to be the case in translating novels to films, there were some incidental changes. The Kid was 26 in the book, but clearly in his 30s in the film. Lancey’s surname became Howard. In the book he was thin, in the film well-upholstered. Melba (Ann-Margret), the girlfriend of Shooter (Karl Malden) is not given a name in the book. The book is set in St Louis, the film in New Orleans.

But the book lacks sub-plots. It’s a straightforward narrative. The Kid decides to take on Lancey and while waiting for the game to be fixed up, having effectively broken up with Christian, he takes a 20-hour bus journey out to see her at her farm, returns on his own and for the rest of the book is involved in the poker duel with Lancey. Incidental characters make an appearance, Shooter as the dealer, some others including Pig (Jack Weston) making up the poker table.

The book doesn’t open with the Kid hustling, playing in a run-down part of town against inferior players, being accused of cheating, getting involved in a punch-up and being chased across a railroad yard. That’s all the invention of the scriptwriters Terry Southern (Barbarella, 1968) and Ring Lardner Jr. (Mash, 1970). The young shoeshine boy who interacts with the Kid several times throughout the movie doesn’t appear in the book either. And there was no cockfight in the book, that was also added by the screenwriters.

These were small devices to develop screen character. The punch-up showed that the Kid could take care of himself. The scenes with the shoeshine boy suggested that the Kid had begun early as a compulsive gambler, always measuring himself against an older player. And those scenes also demonstrated that gambling was not a sport for the kind-hearted. An actor with less confidence in his screen persona than McQueen might have insisted that he did not take the boy’s losing bet. (Such considerations are not rare – Robert Redford, for example, refused to play lawyer Frank Galvin in The Verdict unless the character was changed from being an alcoholic). The cockfight revealed that the characters mostly lived in an illegal world – the cops might turn a blind eye to a poker game in a private room in a hotel but would frown upon a bloody and brutal sport like cockfighting.

Sometimes, the screenwriters had to embellish certain scenes to bring them alive. The sequence where the Kid won over Christian’s parents with his card tricks is nothing more than a sentence in the book and characters like Pig are fleshed out.

But the most significant alterations to the book were the additions of two sub-plots. The first had Shooter, while acting as dealer, risk his reputation by agreeing to flip the Kid an occasional good card. This comes from being blackmailed by wealthy businessman Slade (Rip Torn) who threatens to call in Shooter’s marker, his gambling debt. Not only is this idea a screenwriter creation, but the character of Slade does not exist in the book. In fact, the whole idea runs against the unwritten code of honor among big-time poker players. And it would be extremely unlikely that Shooter would stoop so low. Even if broke, he would be able to eventually win back a stake. But if caught facilitating cheating his name would be mud and he would never play poker again in his life.

The second sub-plot concerns Melba (Ann-Margret). She exists on the periphery in the book. But she is something of a character, a genuine class act among the women who follow the game or are in relationships with the players. In the book, she was believed to have had a college education because “she read thick books and she dressed New York”  and she attended arthouse cinemas. She was also admired for sticking with Shooter when his luck turned bad.

That’s not the character in the film. While not a gambler per se, she has a competitive streak and cheats at ordinary games – solitaire, jigsaw puzzles – where it makes no sense to cheat. In the book she is merely “beautiful;” in the film she turns into a man-eater, seducing the Kid, an action that went against her character in the book.

You would harldy argue that these sub-plots impaired enjoyment of the film. Perhaps those who read the  book first might object. But, as ever, in examining what happens to books once they are bought up for the movies, each film examined is an example of the difference between a book and a film and how screenwriters compensate for perceived flaws. Some books, Blindfold, for example, required wholesale changes. Here, while the key storyline works like a charm, what was missing were the extra beats to ramp up the tension, otherwise there would be too long a wait in hanging around for the poker game to start. As a result of the sub-plots, what is put in jeopardy is the Kid’s relationship with Christian and his purity of involvement in the game itself, not just that any hint of cheating would bar him from the game, but that he wanted to beat Lancey fair and square so that, should he achieve that ambition, he would never have cause to doubt how he managed it.

Behind the Scenes – “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965)

As you can see from the advertisement above, this was originally intended to be quite a different film, directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Spencer Tracy in the role of ageing poker champ Lancey. The director had just come off one troubled shoot, Major Dundee (1965), and was seeking Hollywood redemption. Two-time Oscar winner Tracy was also hoping to revive his career. Except for what amounted to little more than a extended cameo on It’s A Mad, Mad,, Mad, Mad World (1963) he had not worked since Judgement at Nuremberg (1961). Also initially on board in a small role was Sharon Tate (Valley of the Dolls, 1967)

This was also a big gamble for industry outsider Martin Ransohoff who had moved to the forefront of independent production after The Americanization of Emily (1964) with Julie Andrews and James Garner and The Sandpiper (1965) starring current top-billed royalty Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He had wheeled and dealed with top studios – MGM, Columbia and United Artists – desperate for quality product. He was planning the biggest movie of his career having purchased the rights to the Alistair MacLean bestseller Ice Station Zebra. Ransohoff was a marketing innovator and long before Robert Evans pumped tens of thousands of Paramount dollars into advertising the book of Love Story (1970) to ensure it rode high on the bestseller charts and thus increased public awareness, Ransohoff had pulled off the same trick for Richard Jessup’s novel The Cincinnati Kid.

Tracy was first to quit, infuriated that he was denied script approval. Essentially, he wanted his role beefed up. But Ransohoff “would not expand his role in any way” and angered at the prospect of playing second fiddle to McQueen the actor walked out, to be replaced by a star with considerably less marquee appeal, Edward G. Robinson.

At least Tracy was able to depart with head held high. Peckinpah was ignominiously fired after shooting had begun. The intemperate director had already locked horns with the producer over a story which had now taken the efforts of four screenwriters – Oscar-winner Paddy Chayefsky (The Americanization of Emily), Oscar-winner Ring Lardner Jr. (Woman of the Year, 1943), Oscar nominee Terry Southern (Dr Strangelove, 1964) and newcomer Charles Eastman (Little Fauss and Big Halsy, 1970) – to knock the book into a workable screenplay without the extra bother of Peckinpah adding his own scenes.

Trade newspaper Variety reported: “Peckinpah’s problems stemmed from his filming of a nude scene that wasn’t in the script but which the director wrote on his own. Last Friday (November 4, 1964) he reportedly excused the featured cast and began to lense the nudie scene using an extra from the cast.” Whether this was indeed Sharon Tate, of whom Peckinpah was reported to have filmed in a flimsy shirt without a bra so that her nipples were showing, is unclear. And although there is an undertone of sex in the actual picture, as delivered by Ann-Margret, it was considerably more discreet.

Strangely enough, Ransohoff was no stranger to the benefits of nudity in his pictures and had fought a losing battle with the all-powerful MPAA, the industry ruling body in matters of censorship, to have nude scenes included in The Americanization of Emily. The nude statue of Elizabeth Taylor in The Sandpiper was permitted, however, and Ransohoff sent hundreds of miniature statues out to influencers as a gift.

Peckinpah did not have final cut so Ransohoff could easily have excised any nude scenes from the finished movie. What was considerably more alarming was that Peckinpah was shooting in black-and-white. Later, Ransohoff would contend that he was outraged by this notion but he surely must have signed off on it at the outset. Whatever the reasons, and some believed fisticuffs were involved, Peckinpah was sacked, leaving a $750,000 hole in the budget.

Production closed for over a month while Ransohoff scrambled for a new director. McQueen was pay-or-play, so if the film was cancelled, the actor was due his entire fee. McQueen had signed on for a fee of $200,000 – or $350,000 depending on who you believe – and $30,000 a week in overtime plus 25 per cent of the profit and a host of extras. McQueen had been initially lined up for a Ranoshoff remake of Boys Town to co-star James Garner, but that proved little more than a publicity flyer.

Replacement Norman Jewison had no reputation for hard-line drama – more at home with light comedy such as Send Me No Flowers (1964) – but was available and more likely to toe the Ransohoff line. However, initially he demurred. It was against the rules of the Directors Guild to step in in such a manner and Jewison required reassurance that Peckinpah was indeed out of the picture, and the film had been shut down, before accepting the job. Theoretically, Jewison received more control of the final cut than Peckinpah. His contract called for him to be in sole charge of the completed picture until after the third public preview. If it wasn’t working by that point, Ransohoff had the right to take over. Jewison exerted control in other ways, denying actors a chance to look at the rushes

Theoretically, McQueen had conceded top billing to Spencer Tracy, but that was not reflected in the artwork MGM put out – the illustration at the top of the Blog appeared in the trade press prior to production. To keep McQueen sweet during the layoff, Ransohoff handed him $25,000 to play the tables in Vegas. Edward G. Robinson had the same worries as Spencer Tracy, fearing his part would be cut to build up the star. In reality, McQueen welcomed going head-to-head with an older star, a situation he had not experienced since The Magnificent Seven (1960) with Yul Brynner.

But if the male stars, under the confident direction of Jewison, gave no trouble, that was not the case with the female contingent. Tuesday Weld came with a heap of personal issues related to becoming, as a child model,  the family breadwinner at an early age – nervous breakdown at nine, alcoholic at ten, suicide attempt at twelve. She had never quite achieved stardom, in part as a result of turning down roles like Lolita (1962)

Ann-Margret was the opposite. She could earn nearly as much as McQueen – her fee at some studios was $250,000. However, Twentieth Century Fox was holding her to an earlier four-picture deal which paid a miserly $25,000 per movie, forcing her to lose out on a $150,000 payday in Europe for The 10th Victim (1965) with Marcello Mastroianni – known at the time as The Seventh Victim, Ursula Andress her replacement – in order to take up a contracted role in the remake of Stagecoach (1966). Her over-sexed screen persona had caused playwright William Inge to remove his name from Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965).

One of the hottest young stars in the business, she intended to stay that way, and her portrayal of Melba in The Cincinnati Kid pretty much fitted in with audience expectation. She was in such demand that she was under contract to make a total of 17 pictures for five separate studios plus Frank Sinatra’s independent production company. Her deals were with Universal (six pictures), Fox (four), MGM (three), Columbia (three) and United Artists (one). But after dropping out of Marriage on the Rocks (1965) with Sinatra her output for the rest of the decade comprised one movie apiece for Paramount, MGM, Fox and Columbia and four independent pictures in Italy.

MGM spent big bucks promoting the picture and, in particular, the Ann-Margret connection. The studio had put a marker down on Thanksgiving 1965 for the launch date, but was marketing the movie more than six months ahead, the kind of exposure that was normally only allotted to roadshow features.

SOURCES: Christopher Sandford, McQueen: The Biography, Harper Collins paperback (2002) pages 165, 170-176; Penina Spiegel, Steve McQueen: The Untold Story of a Bad Boy in Hollywood,  Collins, 1986, p162, 169-173; “Ransohoff To Start Five Films in 6-Month Period,” Box Office, June 17, 1963, p27; “Marty Ransohoff To Seek Code Changes,” Box Office, November 25, 1963, p6; “Ann-Margret Into The Cash Splash,” Variety, July 22, 1964, p5; advert, Box Office, October 9, 1964, p9; “More Cincinnati Kid Books,” Box Office, October 24, 1964, pW-5; “Refuse Spencer Tracy Xincy Kid Script Okay So Actor Takes Powder,” Variety, November 11, 1964, p24; “Jewison Replacement for Sam Peckinpah,” Variety, December 9, 1964, p24; Advert, Variety, March 10, 1965, p80; “Fear Ann-Margret Going Wrongo In Her Screen Image,” Variety, March 24, 1965, p5; “Fox Holds Ann-Margret To Stagecoach, Denying Her For Mastroianni,” Variety, April 14, 1965, 4; Advert, Variety, May 19, 1965, p20.

The Cincinnati Kid (1965) *****

Steve McQueen had little trouble identifying with this role. He was the Hollywood contender, trying to knock current kingpin Paul Newman off his perch, and in Norman Jewison’s tense, often heart-stopping, drama he has the ideal vehicle. For the most part this is a winner-take-all face-off, as much a showdown as any western shootout, in darkened rooms under the harsh light of a New Orleans poker table between a rising star always referred to as The Kid (Steve McQueen) and the unofficial world champion, the urbane cigar-smoking Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson).

Broadened out in the initial stages to include scenic diversions – the Mississippi at dawn, a cockfight, some jazz – plus romance and intrigue, this is essentially pure sport, a game of stares, where bluff holds the ace and women exist on the perimeter only to fill in the time before the next hyped-up encounter. There’s no trophy to be won, not even glory, just the right to call yourself “The Man.” The Kid feels the pressure of punching above his weight, Lancey of getting old.

Farmer’s daughter and arty-wannabe Christian (Tuesday Weld) is the Kid’s main squeeze until she gets between him and his game. When she takes off, he makes do with Melba (Ann-Margret), girlfriend of dealer Shooter (Karl Malden) who was somewhat preoccupied with giving the Kid more than a helping hand to satisfy the vengeful Slade (Rip Torn), a rich businessman.

Although it finally comes down to a confrontation between the Kid and Lancey, subordinate characters like sweating poker player Pig (Jack Weston) and stand-in dealer Ladyfingers (Joan Blondell) help dissipate the tension. But in fact anything that occurs only seems to increase the tension as it comes down to the one big final hand. 

This is McQueen (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) in transition, from the loner in The Great Escape (1963) to an actor exuding charisma and on top of his acting game. While on the face of it little more than a sporting lug, the Kid is an appealing character, engaging with a little shoeshine boy, winning over Christian’s truculent parents with what appears a card trick but is actually a demonstration of the phenomenal memory necessary to excel in his chosen field. There’s a winsome child in there among the macho persona. The poker face that McQueen developed would become one of his acting traits over the years.

Edward G. Robinson (Seven Thieves, 1960) gives a rounded performance as the reigning poker champ accepting emotional loss as the price for all his financial gains. Tuesday Weld is an appealing waif. Karl Malden (Pollyanna, 1960) essays another tormented soul and Rip Torn (Judas in King of Kings, 1961) a sleazy one. Also look out for a host of great character actors including Jack Weston (Mirage, 1965), Oscar nominee Joan Blondell (Advance to the Rear, 1964) and Jeff Corey (Once a Thief, 1965) plus composer and bandleader Cab Calloway.

Ann-Margret, all eye-shadow and cleavage, is in her best man-eater form. But, thankfully, there is more to her character than that. It is unclear whether she simply latches on to a potential winner or is pimped out by Shooter, but just hooking up with that older man (i.e. Shooter) makes her interesting, since looks are far from his attraction. Her ruthlessness is spelled out in simple fashion. She is determined to win, cheating at solitaire and she slams the wrong pieces into a jigsaw just for the satisfaction of making it look complete. You can sense a depth in this character which the film does not have time to fully explore.

Although often compared to The Hustler (1962), and in many eyes considered both its inferior and a crude rip-off, this is in some respects a greater achievement. At least in The Hustler, there actually was action, players moving around a pool table, clacking balls racing across the surface.  Poker is all about stillness. Any gesture could give away your thoughts. Unlike any other sport, poker requires silence. There is no roaring crowd, just people dotted round the room, some with vested interest if only through a wager, some wanting to say they were there when a champion was toppled.

So the ability to maintain audience interest with two guys just staring at each other, interspersed with minimal dialog, takes some skill. Building that to a crescendo of sheer tension is incredible.

The first four pictures of Canadian director Norman Jewison (Send Me No Flowers, 1964) did not hint at the dramatic chops, confidence, composure and understanding of pacing required, especially as he was a last-minute replacement for Sam Peckinpah, to pull this off. That he does so with style demonstrated a keen and versatile talent that would come to the boil in his next three films: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).  

The former blacklisted Ring Lardner Jr. (Tracy-Hepburn comedy Woman of the Year, 1942) was credited with his first screenplay since The Forbidden Street in 1949 and he shared the chore with another iconic figure, Terry Southern (Dr Strangelove, 1964), basing their work on the original novel by Richard Jessup. Not sure who contributed the classic line: “Read ’em and weep.” Mention should be made of a terrific score by Lao Schifrin.

My Five-Star Picks for the First Year of the Blog

It’s a been a fabulous year for watching the movies and my pictures of the year (the first full year of the Blog running from July to June, I hasten to add) make up an eclectic collection ranging from historical epics, dramas and westerns to horror, thrillers and comedy. Although this is my chosen decade, many of the films I was seeing for the first time so it was interesting to sometimes come at a film that had not necessarily received kind reviews and discover for one reason or another cinematic gems. There was no single reason why these pictures were chosen. Sometimes it was the performance, sometimes the direction, sometimes a combination of both.

The westerns I most enjoyed came from either ends of the decade – John Wayne and Rock Hudson in magnificent widescreen spectacle The Undefeated (1969) and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the team in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

There was another ensemble all-star cast in J. Lee Thompson war film The Guns of Navarone (1961) one of the biggest hits of the decade with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker et al.

Horror brought a couple of surprises in the shape of Daliah Lavi as the Italian peasant succumbing to The Demon (1963) and Peter Cushing menaced by The Skull (1965).

Not surprisingly perhaps Alfred Hitchcock headed the ranks of the five-star thrillers, but surprisingly to some, this was in the shape of Marnie (1964) with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren rather than some of his decade’s more famous / infamous productions.  Heading the romantic thrillers was the terrifically twisty Blindfold (1965) with Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale teaming up to find a missing scientist. The Sicilian Clan (1969) proved to be a fine heist picture in its own right as well as a precursor to The Godfather with a topline French cast in Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin.

Only one comedy made the five-star grade and what else would you expect from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), slightly outside my chosen remit of films from the 1960s, but impossible to ignore the chance to see Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon strutting their stuff on the big screen. For the same reason I had the opportunity to re-evaluate Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning historical epic The Gladiator (2000) that gave Hollywood a new action hero in Russell Crowe. Stylish contemporary sci-fi chiller Possessor (2000), from Brandon Cronenberg,  was another one seen on the big screen, one of the few in this year of the pandemic.

Most people would certainly put Paul Newman as prisoner Cool Hand Luke (1967) in this elevated category but, to my surprise, I found several other dramas fitted the bill. The clever sexy love triangle Les Biches (1968) from French director Claude Chabrol made his name. Burt Lancaster turned in a superlative and under-rated performance in the heart-breaking The Swimmer (1968) about the loss of the American Dream. Rod Steiger, on the other hand, was a hair’s-breadth away from picking up an Oscar for his repressed turn as The Pawnbroker (1964).

Two films set in the Deep South also made the list – Marlon Brando in Arthur Penn’s depiction of racism in small-town America in The Chase (1966) with an amazing cast also featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Michael Caine as a more than passable arrogant southerner in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967) opposite rising star Faye Dunaway. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hymn to the freedom of the motorbike in Easy Rider (1969) turned into a tragic study of attitudes to non-conformity.

For only eighteen films out of a possible two hundred to make the cut indicates the high standards set, and I am looking forward to as many, if not more, brilliant films in the year to come.

Hollywood: A Fashion Accessory

The new documentary on Audrey Hepburn – the Queen of Chic – and my reference to the making of the Valley of the Dolls in “My Books of the Year” blog made me wonder just how important fashion had become to movie marketing in the 1960s. So I did some digging. And found that the this particular decade had indeed been a golden age for Hollywood fashion.

Although actresses had set fashion trends before  – Lana Turner’s turtleneck sweater as evening wear, for example, Marlene Dietrich in pants, Carole Lombard’s shirts and Greta Garbo’s pillbox hat while Warner Brother’s star Kay Francis was often in reviews referred to as a clothes-horse – fashion had not previously been given the hard sell. Throughout the 1960s, that was remedied.

The new attitude to fashion as a marketing tool was instigated after a piece of market research. In 1960 United States market research company Sindlinger carried out consumer investigation on behalf of Universal that came to the conclusion that women made up 58 per cent of the audience going to see seven of the top ten pictures. In consequence, the studio decided to target the female audience with a marketing approach that would specifically appeal to that gender, namely fashion. First picture to benefit from this change of direction was Doris Day vehicle Midnight Lace (1960). Universal was a step ahead of the rest but Paramount was soon leading the field thanks to the impact on female fashion made by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

Jean Seberg was a designer’s delight. Yves St Laurent designed the clothes for Moment to Moment (1966).

In 1962 Paramount celebrated the fact that Edith Head was the industry’s only full-time contracted designer by hosting a fashion show on the penthouse set of the studio’s Come Blow Your Horn (1963) starring Frank Sinatra.  The event was called “Edith Head’s Penthouse Party.” Being showcased were costumes from eleven of the designer’s current or forthcoming movies. The cheapest outfit on show cost just $2.89 (worn by Patricia Neal in Hud – known at the time as Hud Bannon)  while the most expensive (for Jill St John in Come Blow Your Horn) set the studio back $3,700. In total the studio spent $420,000 on costumes for the movies.

As well as the two films mentioned above, other pictures in the Edith Head portfolio given a marketing push because of her fashion input included Elvis Presley vehicle Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962) co-starring Stella Stevens, comedy Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963) with Jackie Gleason and Glynis Johns, comedy Who’s Got the Action (1962) headlining Dean Martin and Lana Turner, and France Nuyen as A Girl Called Tamiko (1962). Also involved were Jerry Lewis numbers It’s Only Money (1962) and The Nutty Professor (1963), John Wayne adventure Donovan’s Reef (1963), Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward romantic comedy Samantha (later renamed A New Kind of Love, 1963) and Debbie Reynolds in My Six Loves (1963).

The outfits were modelled by some of the film’s stars including St John, Stevens, Nuyen,  Barbara Rush and Phyllis Maguire (also from Come Blow Your Horn), Myoshi Umieti and Martha Hyer (also from A Girl Called Tamiko) and Elizabeth Allen (Donovan’s Reef). Also on hand were four Japanese models and a quartet of actresses making the transition from modelling –  Patricia Olsen who had a small part in Samantha, Pat Jones, Mary Morlas and Olavee Parsons.  John Wayne, David Janssen (My Six Loves) and Cesar Romero (Donovan’s Reef) also put in an appearance but drew the line at modeling.

However, the big commercial push for Hollywood fashions came from My Fair Lady (1964). The impact of the Hepburn look in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was accidental, rather than deliberate. But from the outset the bulk of the promotional activity for the Lerner and Loewe musical was based around the costumes designed by Cecil Beaton. Whether or not the public could afford such flamboyant outfits was not uppermost in the minds of fashion editors – what Hepburn wore was just so stunning and converted into fabulous editorial spreads, especially for the magazines and newspaper supplements which by this time were mainlining on color, that it created a tsunami of marketing material.

In 1967 costumes hit a commercial peak with a record $12 million budget in total allocated to wardrobes. A total of $8 million was spent on just 15 movies. Easily topping the list was musical Camelot (1967) at $2.25 million while Doctor Dolittle (1967) racked up $1 million, Star! (1968) $750,000 and Funny Girl (1968) $500,000. Three hundred fashion editors attended a fashion show at the Plaza Hotel in New York for a first glimpse of the clothes worn in Funny Girl.

One year earlier Universal had pushed the boat out marketing-wise for the outfits designed by Yves St Laurent for Jean Seberg in Moment to Moment (1966). That same year Warner Bros had focused on fashion for its promotion of the fashion-conscious Kaleidoscope (1966). Stars Warren Beatty and Susannah York might as well have been fashion models given the range of outfits they wore and the movie’s Pressbook claimed the clothes specially created for the picture were on the biggest selling-points for a movie in years especially as most “in” stores “know about the kicky, eye-arresting swingy ‘mod’ fashion clothes which are all the rage.”

Candice Bergen, a former model, caused a sensation in Paris – where she was shooting Vivre pour Vivre (1967) with Yves Montand – when she participated in the Dior show. Her unexpected appearance as well as the clothes she wore received huge publicity. Also in 1967, MGM took out a full-page advertisement in Variety to, among other things, proclaim the impact of Doctor Zhivago on female fashion – “the world is wearing the Zhivago look.”

Expenditure was not an issue. A red velvet cloak worn by Kim Novak in The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) cost an eye-popping $35,000 while Samantha Eggar’s fourteen costumes in Doctor Dolittle each cost between $7,000 and $14,000. The price of Vanessa Redgrave’s wedding dress in Camelot was $12,000.  Five gowns at a total of $17,000 made for Judy Garland for Valley of the Dolls (1967) were discarded when the actress was sacked and they did not fit replacement Susan Hayward.

Bonnie and Clyde had initially flopped in the U.S. so there was no great demand for Theodora van Runkle’s outfits. The film’s fashion craze started in London where it proved an unexpected hit. There, fashion house Matita launched a Bonnie outfit which caught on. But Stateside when the Bonnie look was widely adopted it was primarily because it was cheap to copy – a mid-calf skirt, thick-seamed stockings and the white beret not hard to replicate.

But it wasn’t just female fashions that benefitted from movie spinoffs. Male fashions seen in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) were adapted for commercial retail use by Geoffrey Beane and Donald Brooks, who were so convinced (mistakenly) that the movie would be a hit straight off the bat that the clothes appeared on racks long before the movie was released and the pair had to wait until the next year before demand for the movie turned into interest in its fashion.

In fact, men had always been a part of fashion marketing for the movies. Even a film as male-oriented and action-filled as The Guns of Navarone (1961) was given a fashion slant as a means of attracting a female audience – as I discovered when writing a book on the making of the film. “Navarone Blue” – was officially adapted by the British Colour Council while “Navarone Gold” was developed for the Colour Association of the United States. Both dyes were marketed to the manufacturers of automobiles, interior design and fabrics such as bedspreads. Grecian fashion was sold in 50 department stores including Macy’s. And it was written into the contracts of all the female stars that they wear clothes of either colour at premieres.

Lee Marvin had become an unlikely fashion icon and to take advantage of this new status MGM set up “coast-to-coast” promotions for Point Blank (1967). Highlander Clothes developed a fashion line as a marketing tie-up with over 60 stores from all over the country participating. Alcatraz – where part of the movie was filmed – was the location for a fashion shoot that went out in a three-page layout to the 20 million readers of Life magazine under the heading “Well-Dressed Moll Styles in Alcatraz.”

At the end of the decade another male-oriented picture, Downhill Racer (1969), was sold via a fashion marketing campaign. Steve McQueen, the epitome of cool, became a hook for fashion marketing, especially after The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) while Eli Wallach was an unlikely male model in upmarket male magazines. Earlier, for another male-dominated story, Seven Days in May (1964), director John Frankenheimer had been pictured wearing a Cardinal custom-made suit in an ad in Gentleman’s Quarterly. More in keeping with old-fashioned publicity gimmickry, for that film Paramount had also hired designer Mollie Parnis to create a suit for women that could be worn seven different ways on seven different days.

SOURCES: “Women Biggest Picture-Goers, So U Laces Midnight Campaign with Fashions,” Variety, Sep 7, 1960, 16 ; “Fashion Omnibus On 11 Features, By Edith Head,” Variety, Oct 31, 1962, 18; “H’wood Fashions Boom Year,” Oct 4, 1967, 5 ; “Paris Fashions – 1967,” Variety, Feb 15, 1967, 2; advertisement, Doctor Zhivago, Variety, Jan 4, 1967, 37.; Pressbook, Kaleidoscope; Pressbook, Point Blank; Pressbook, Seven Days in May; Brian Hannan, The Making of the Guns of Navarone (Baroliant, 2013) p153-154; Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater near You (McFarland 2016) p186. 

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