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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Coloring Giant Ants!

Ask a sci-fi fan to name the most memorable feature of Them! and they’re likely to mention those giant marauding ants, or the creepy and evocative opening scene with little Sandy Descher walking through the desert. It’s a blue-ribbon sci-fi classic filled with unforgettable moments, and there’s no use in our revisiting them here when others have so thoroughly covered the subject (are there any sci-fi pics left from the fifties that haven’t been exhaustively researched?). Fact is I like Them! so much, having just watched it again last week, that I just had to sit down and write something about it --- but what’s left to say? Then it hit me --- the coloring contest! Having been amazed by the publicity blitzkrieg discovered in some June, 1954 issues of our local small-town newspaper during a recent microfilm expedition, I decided a little further research might be in order ---

What I found was possibly the biggest local campaign any picture had in our little town that year. The drumbeat started three weeks in advance of the playdate at the Allen Theatre (which seated 450, had a balcony, but no stage). The newspaper carried its first announcement of the coloring contest, and as you can see, these were no penny ante Cracker-Jack prizes. RCA Victor televisions were a heady proposition in a community where few families even owned a TV, and those other prizes no doubt generated excitement in a lot of households as well. In fact, I'm betting a lot of adults put crayon to paper in an effort to assist Junior in collecting these valuable goodies. As you can see by the "Coloring Contest Entry Blank", the idea was to imagine how the ants would look in color, and I’d love to know if any of those original entries survive today. The Allen unleashed the monsters on June 27, 1954, and Them! played a three-day engagement, which was pretty much the outside maximum run for any movie in our town, unless it was The Ten Commandments. Even when I going as a kid in the mid to late sixties, we almost never had anything for more than three days, and three to five program changes a week was pretty much the norm back then. No doubt Them! did socko biz for the Allen, as it followed Creature From The Black Lagoon (in 3-D, of course) by a week, and was itself displaced by Dial M For Murder. If there was ever a filmgoing paradise on this earth, it must have been the Allen in June, 1954.

For those of you who always dreamed of becoming a Them fighter (just like the regular civilian defense wears!), here is your opportunity. I’ve uploaded this authentic (and novel!) armband that you can print, cut out, and wear everywhere you go! You’ll no doubt arouse much comment and speculation among friends and neighbors, right up to the moment you’re taken in for questioning. As Randy Scott would say in a Budd Boetticher western, you can go proud in a Them armband! And by the way, does anyone know Mrs. J.D. Campbell of Midville, Ohio? Is it possible that Mr. Campbell was a Warners exchange man in that area, or a starving Ohio exhibitor hoping to get better terms for upcoming WB releases? Mrs. Campbell certainly doesn’t look like the kind of patron who would enjoy a picture like Them!. In fact, she more resembles the sort who would try to prevent other people from enjoying Them!. And public safety concerns do compel us to point out the hazards inherent in that proposed street bally. To wit, if those girls intend to walk shoulder-to-shoulder down city sidewalks, where does that leave their fellow pedestrians? Dangerously close to, if not in, the street, I should think. And finally, does anyone actually possess that Art Carney "novelty record"? I can’t imagine what a thing like that would sound like, but I’d sure like to hear it. If anyone has one, please enlighten us all!

Finally, Them! at the boxoffice. I’ve read over and over about how this was Warner’s biggest moneymaker in 1954. How it out-grossed all those big pictures like A Star Is Born, etc. Well, it’s true the movie was a hit, but it certainly wasn’t their biggest hit. Them! had a negative cost of $1.2 million, and earned $1.6 in domestic rentals. Foreign rentals were $890,000, and worldwide was $2.5 million, with a final profit of $685,000. That’s fantastic for a sci-fi show, but it’s nowhere near what Dial M For Murder brought back --- or Drum Beat with Alan Ladd (anybody remember that one?). Them! was more profitable than A Star Is Born, even though the musical grossed more (its final figure in black ink was only $164,000, due to the exorbitant costs). The really big smashes that year were The High and The Mighty ($4.6 profit), and believe it or not, the Dragnet feature with Jack Webb ($3.3 to the good)! Both of these ran rings around the ants, but it’s no discredit to Them!, since legacy-wise, it seems to have emerged the clear winner.


Anonymous Griff said...

You are far too savvy -- anyone who so clearly grasps the once vital concept of "rentals" is an expert in my book -- for me to seriously doubt your financials... ...but, that said, given the enormous negative cost of A STAR IS BORN (at least $4 million, perhaps as much as $6 million; Ron Haver once estimated about $5.5), I can't see how the picture ever crept into the black, even after a late '50s reissue and subsequent tv sale. What rental figures for the picture do you have?

12:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too only recently rewatched THEM, my favourite scene is the one where they stop by the General Store in the middle of the sand storm, great moment. I find the Colouring In Competion's image a little strange and doubt that it would be the same image today.

1:52 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Griff --- The numbers I have on "A Star Is Born" are as follows

Negative Cost --- $5.0 million
Domestic Rentals --- $4.6 M
Foreign Rentals --- $2.2 M
Worldwide --- $6.9 M
Final Profit --- $164,000

The picture was re-issued in 1959, and released to television in 1961. I read a story once about Judy having watched it on TV around '62. J.

5:26 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

"Believe it or not?!?" You need to refresh your memory on the absolute "Dragnet" mania that gripped this country in the early 1950's. (You can start by buying a copy of my book, "My Name's Friday") :-D

Seriously, "Dragnet" couldn't not be huge: even though it was in color, Webb shot it in 22 days, and his final negative cost was a hair over a half-million. It certainly kicked over Lucy and Desi's "Long, Long Trailer" at the B.O.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Mike In Ohio said...

I printed off the picture for the coloring contest and I'll be sending it in. Taylor hopes to have a chance at the radio!!!!

6:07 PM  

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