Fifty Years Of The Searchers --- Part 1
An announcer on one of our non-profit radio stations will often remind us that "all classical music was once new." That’s to say it was designed to appeal to listeners once upon a long time ago, even if they amounted to no more than a handful of guests gathered at the home of the composer’s patron and provider. Hollywood movies never played to such an exclusive audience, of course, though some achieved critical standing so lofty as to make it difficult for us to picture them at drive-ins and in grindhouses. For all the respect and reverence accorded The Searchers today, we tend to forget that it was once a product like any other on the Warners conveyer line --- merchandise to be sold like the rest. Those books, articles, and DVD extras wax eloquently on the subjects of Ethan Edward’s racism, John Ford’s disillusionment with America, etc. --- but did the folks arriving at the Loew’s Route 35 Drive-In in July 1956 really care a damn about such matters? Click and enlarge on the montage before you and observe the fun time to be had that summer evening fifty years ago. First, you had a massive playground, featuring a power-driven merry-go-round, plus "The Loew’s 35 Flyer", a miniature railroad with a diesel locomotive. A legion of attendants served up cafeteria style goodies in a concession complex with patio seating. In the face of all this, plus The Magnificent Roughnecks (Jack Carson!) as a second feature, even The Searchers becomes a fairly prosaic viewing experience. By the time this venerated fifty years hence Ford/Wayne western arrived at the Loew’s 35, it had been kicking around various playdates for a couple of months, having premiered at the fabulous Chicago Theatre on May 16, 1956 (check out their splendid marquee here). What led up to that opening, and what took place after, is what we’re about today (and tomorrow in Part 2), so if you’re looking for further musings as to whether old Mose Harper actually represents a Shakespearean Holy Fool archetype, chances are, you’ve come to the wrong web page.
The drumbeat began with trade screenings announced for March 12, 1956. Few of us remember Serenade today, but Mario Lanza was still a name to be reckoned with in 1956, and this was his first for Warners. Prospects for another Lanza hit loomed large in the minds of exhibitors still recalling those wheelbarrows they pushed to the bank with Great Caruso money. More trade ads would follow in advance of the opening. Here’s one from April 28, 1956 --- encouraging showmen to line up their bookings for "Decoration Day." Producers C.V. Whitney and Merian C. Cooper had devised The Searchers as the opening chapter for a whole series of patriotic dramas in which Americana themes would be explored. It was an ambitious program, and these lavish announcements were inserted into various trade journals and direct mailings as a means of generating exhibitor support. Among other things, Whitney and Cooper would mount an epic Civil War story to follow The Searchers with John Ford again at the helm (that did not come to fruition). Maybe it was a gesture of good will that inspired them to appoint Jack’s scapegrace son, Patrick, as associate producer on The Searchers and their modest follow-up Americana subject, The Missouri Traveler. Pat is shown here with Whitney, wearing not only his father’s signature dark glasses, but sporting two pipes as well. Talk about living in Pop’s shadow! Those generous captions would suggest quite a distinguished producing background for Pat. He would end up working for the probation office in Los Angeles County. These tributes to stuntmen and Indian extras illustrate the kind of serious money that went into advance promotion for this show. Whitney and Cooper were counting on The Searchers to not only succeed on its own merits, but to provide the impetus for an entire slate of major independent productions.
That world premiere for The Searchers brought out most of Illinois’ VIP’s, including the state’s governor and Chicago mayor Dick Daley. There was a live CBS-TV broadcast from the theatre lobby in which star John Wayne and boon companion Ward Bond were interviewed (oh, to have a video of that!). Guests included Harry Belafonte and Nat "King" Cole. Receipts for the night added up to five thousand, and the five-day take was a princely $34,560. Here’s that spectacular Chicago Theatre marquee on the day of the opening, and a shot of Duke and Ward Bond dropping in on local radio personality Tony Weitzel. By the end of May, The Searchers had widened out to Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. That Detroit engagement found a genial J.W. roped and tied by a bevy of co-eds from Wayne University as smiling Ward Bond looks on (more shots from this junket tomorrow, so check back). The Searchers played off to strong returns across the country, although exhibitors complained bitterly about the unyielding percentage terms imposed by Warners which called for a strict fifty percent of all boxoffice receipts, with no adjustments made for poor grosses. Smaller houses, in particular, suffered in the face of these distributor policies. Companies in the past had allowed for a second look at terms following slow engagements as a means of helping out the independent showmen, but lately this concession had been abandoned in favor of strict accountings. Warners was even shipping flat rental prints C.O.D., which meant, of course, that theatres could not take delivery until they were paid for --- in advance of the playdate. This caused a lot of ill will between industry factions whose working relationship had been difficult at best, and was now reaching a breaking point, what with large blocks of pre-48 features being sold off by the studios to television (exhibition's implacable enemy). Despite the friction, domestic rentals for The Searchers were a whopping $4.3 million (topped only by that year’s Moby Dick and Giant) against a negative cost of $2.5. Foreign rentals added another $2.5 for a worldwide total of $6.8 million. Final profit was $2.6 million. Hard to believe that within five years, this Vistavision/Technicolor hit would be playing syndicated television, a Warners move that would further increase resentment among the ranks of exhibition as the one-eyed monster at home began gobbling up the post-48 studio libraries … but that is a story for tomorrow’s Part 2.