Box Office Poison 1960s Style

The success in 1968 of such disparate movies as The Graduate (1967), Valley of the Dolls (1968) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with no discernible stars got Hollywood thinking whether they needed stars anymore. Stars were viewed as insurance. Their names were attached to pictures in the hope that they would bring a sizeable audience.

But for some time that had proved not to be the case. Certainly actors with the box office clout of Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Elizabeth Taylor, Lee Marvin, John Wayne, Richard Burton and Elvis Presley justified their extravagant salaries. But exhibitors had begun to complain that studios were forcing them to carry the cost of stars who did not deliver, the salaries inflating “the terms that theatres must pay for films.”

Big names viewed as box office poison in 1968 included Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, William Holden and Natalie Wood. An investigation by trade magazine Variety uncovered the fact that in each case the last four pictures of each star – who earned $250,000 or more per movie – had flopped. Average movie budgets by now had climbed to $3-$4 million not counting marketing costs so most movies had to bring in over $10 million at the global box office to break even

The star with the worst track record was Anthony Quinn. Average rental for his past four pictures – $800,000. While Zorba the Greek (1964) had been an unexpected hit, what followed was anything but. Discounting a cameo in Marco the Magnificent (1965), the box office duds comprised adventure A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), Lost Command (1965), war film The 25th Hour and misconceived hippie comedy The Happening (1967).

Not far behind was Glenn Ford, a star from the days of Gilda (1946), The Blackboard Jungle  (1955) and The Sheepman (1958). He had begun the current decade badly with big-budget losers Cimarron (1960) and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) and his career never recovered. His last eight pictures brought in an average of less than $1 million apiece in rentals. The sad bunch were: comedy western Advance to the Rear, Dear Heart and aerial drama Fate Is the Hunter (all 1964) followed by western The Rounders and thriller The Money Trap (both 1965) as well big budget war epic Is Paris Burning? (1966), rabies drama Rage (1966) and western The Long Ride Home (1967).

Scarcely any better was William Holden, star of David Lean Oscar-winner Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), John Ford western The Horse Soldiers (1959) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960). His last four efforts – The Lion (1962), romantic comedy Paris When It Sizzles (1964), war drama The 7th Dawn (1964) and Civil War western Alvarez Kelly (1966) – returned an average of $1.05 million in rentals. Variety reckoned he was struggling with the problem of how to “gracefully mature his screen image.”

James Garner, once seen as the natural successor to Clark Gable, had failed to capitalize on the success of John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963). Five of his last seven films had dredged up a mere $1.3 million average. Making up the awful quintet were thriller 36 Hours (1964), comedy thriller A Man Could Get Killed (1966), western pair Duel at Diablo (1966) and Hour of the Gun (1967) plus drama Mister Buddwing (1966). Quite why comedy The Art of Love (1965) had done better – $3.5 million in rentals – nobody could ascertain and even though roadshow Grand Prix (1966) was a hit Garner, who was billed below the title, was not considered a reason for it, with some insiders claiming his name had held it back and it would have done much better with someone else in his role.

Morituri (1965), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), The Poppy Is Also a Flower (1966), western sequel Return of the Seven (1966), Triple Cross (1966) and The Long Duel (1967) had mustered an average of $1.4 million leaving observers to the conclusion that Yul Brynner’s “brand of sex appeal” no longer attracted audiences in America.

Marlon Brando had generated just $8.4 million in total rentals – an average of $1.6 million – for his previous six films. No matter what he did, regardless of genre, he had lost his box office spark whether it was comedies like Bedtime Story (1964) and The Countess from Hong Kong (1966), dramas like The Chase (1966) and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), western The Appaloosa (1966) or thriller Morituri (1965). From the industry perspective he was by far the worst performer since his movies cost so much in directors (Charlie Chaplin, John Huston), co-stars (Elizabeth Taylor. Sophia Loren) and sets.

A string of comedies had sounded the box office death knell for Tony Curtis. Boeing, Boeing (1964), Not with My Wife You Don’t (1966), Arrivederci, Baby! (1966) and Don’t Make Waves (1967) delivered a lamentable $1.77 million on average.

Rock Hudson had fallen far from the pedestal of being the country’s top male star in the early 1960s. Two romantic comedies Strange Bedfellows (1965) and A Very Special Favor (1965), a brace of thrillers Blindfold (1966) and Seconds (1965) plus war film Tobruk (1967) did nothing to restore his standing with just $1.86 million in average rental.

Added to the list of dubious stars was Natalie Wood whose career was considered to be in such jeopardy that she had not made picture in two years. Small wonder after dramas Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966) and crime caper Penelope (1966) which averaged $2.2 million.

Whether anybody’s career could be resuscitated after these disasters was anybody’s guess.

Strangely enough, some did regain at least a measure of their former glory, Marlon Brando the obvious example after The Godfather (1972). James Garner had his biggest-ever hit with Support Your Local Sheriff (1969). Tony Curtis revived his fanbase with The Boston Strangler (1968). William Holden returned to favor after the double whammy of The Devil’s Brigade (1968) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Natalie Wood hit the spot in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969) and Yul Brynner as a robotic gunslinger turned his career around in Westworld (1973).

But Glenn Ford’s career was coming to an end and Anthony Quinn followed up this bunch of flops with two more of the same ilk in the Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) and The Magus (1968) although he would still be offered starring roles for more than a decade.

Of course, luckily, decades on, we are not so much guided by the box office various films had and many pictures that were once dubbed flops are now being re-evaluated by a new generation of film fans.

SOURCE: Lee Beaupre, “Rising Skepticism on Stars,” Variety, May 15, 1968, p1

Alvarez Kelly (1966) ***

It says a lot about stardom that Oscar-winner William Holden virtually single-handedly redeems Edward Dmytryk’s Civil War western. And this was at a time when the actor’s career was in freefall, not having had a hit since The World of Suzie Wong (1960). Although his good looks personified him as a matinee idol, many of his best performances came when he was playing against type, as a shady character, such as in this instance.

Dmytryk whose career encompassed The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Young Lions (1958) was on an opposite career trajectory after box office hits The Carpetbaggers (1964) and Gregory Peck thriller Mirage (1965). Between them, Holden and Dmytryk just about save what was a misconceived project, an original screenplay by Franklin Coen (The Train, 1965). That it was based on a true story did not make it any better an idea.

The essential narrative is that Holden has driven a couple thousand head of cattle from Mexico to deliver to Union troops. Holden plays an “Irish senor” (as defined in the title song) whose Mexican origins provides an excuse to consider the United States an enemy, positioning him as a neutral in the conflict, allowing him to justify his profiteering. Confederate colonel Richard Widmark plans to steal the herd.  Had Holden been a patriot the story would have knuckled down to him trying to thwart such plans, but since he’s a free agent with no allegiance except to himself the film has to take another route. So this involves Holden being captured by Widmark in a bid to turn the Confederate soldiers into cowboys capable of driving the stolen herd.

That would set the film down a fairly standard narrative route of training raw recruits such as Holden would follow in The Devil’s Brigade (1968). But this film evades such a simple format. All we ever learn about the intricacies of handling cattle is that you need a hat and have to be able to sing. Instead, this is a more thoughtful picture about honor versus self-interest, about the human casualties of war. Unlike most westerns it’s not about shoot-outs and fairly obvious good guys and bad guys. In the main it’s a drama about conflicting interests and often how good guys will do bad things in the name their beliefs.

The film doesn’t take sides. Do we root for the Union soldiers fighting to free slaves or the romantic version of the Confederacy? Do we root for the immoral selfish Holden because he’s had a finger shot off as a way of bringing him to heel or do our sympathies lie with the upstanding one-eyed Widmark who has given so much for his cause?  

Holden is excellent, easing into the world-weary character he would project more fully in The Wild Bunch (1969). And I like his delivery, the pauses between words as if they are occurring to him for the first time rather than rattling them off as is the way of so many stars. Janice Rule is good as the errant girlfriend who feels let down by Widmark’s honor – and who is open to seduction by Holden – and has her own ideas about what she deserves from the war.  Although it’s tempting to say we’ve seen this craggy Widmark characterization too many times before, here he adds a further emotional layer as a man who eventually faces up to the personal sacrifices he has been forced to make.     

Action fans will be amply rewarded by the ending as Holden attempts to outwit Widmark.

You might also be interested in how this movie was marketed – see the Pressbook/Marketing section article published in tandem with this.

There’s a fair chance you can catch up with this movie for free on one of the Sony Movie channels but if you don’t want to wait or want to enjoy it at its best check out the DVD.