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Friday, June 09, 2006

Fifty Years Of The Searchers --- Part 2

The Searchers never had a theatrical re-issue. Prints did languish in various Warner exchanges over a period of years, but its value was compromised by an early sale to television in mid-1960. That’s when Warner Bros. announced the lease of 122 features produced between 1948 and 1958. Many of these were produced in color. New York’s WOR-TV gleefully posted the happy news for their viewers in Cue magazine during March of 1961. "Movies are better than ever on television", they promised, and color prints would be broadcast for the benefit of those with proper sets to receive them. A Star Is Born, The Prince and The Showgirl, The High and The Mighty, and Rebel Without A Cause were all on the schedule --- and oh yes, The Searchers. This is when and where the burial took place. Audiences would henceforth take The Searchers in bite size --- prints mutilated to accommodate endless commercials, black-and-white telecasts for the most part, and a Vistavision frame cropped to fit the home screen. The film’s critical reputation remained stagnant. An entry in the first edition of Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies book, published in September 1969, tells the story. Accorded three stars, the thumbnail review reads thus --- Well-turned account of Wayne and Hunter seeking Wood and Miles (Miles?!?), kidnapped by Indians; convincing throughout and highly actionful. Thirty-five years later, a revised review in an updated edition would award four stars to a superb western saga … color, scenery, photography all splendid, with moving, insightful Frank Nugent script to match. By this time, of course, we had uninterrupted satellite broadcasts, DVD availability, and even theatrical revivals here and there. But during the sixties and seventies, The Searchers wandered between the winds of syndication and 16mm non-theatrical rental. We still had prints coming out of the Charlotte exchange to service drive-ins and grind bookings --- I found three engagements for Greensboro, NC between 1964 and 1966. The South Drive-In ad shown here was April 8, 1965, and the combo of The Searchers with Yellowstone Kelly would return to Greensboro the following year. Both had rotated several times through the local TV market by then. In fact, Yellowstone Kelly played Greensboro’s Channel 2 the week before the 1965 date. Those Charlotte exchanges closed during the mid-seventies, no doubt reflecting much of what was going on throughout the country. All the 35mm prints were junked. No doubt The Searchers (in irreplaceable Technicolor) went out with the rest.

Warner Bros. Film Gallery used to rent movies to my college during the early to mid seventies. They had a deal where you could get an entire season of shows for a reduced rate. It was a lot like block booking or television packages. Out of thirty features for the academic year, you’d get ten good ones, ten that were mediocre, and ten dogs. The choice was Warner’s. For 1974-75, they sent us The Searchers. Standard rental was $100 for their John Wayne pictures. You paid the same for Big Jim McClain as you would for The Searchers. Their catalogue page for these is shown here. Do please note the wildly inaccurate description of the film’s narrative ("A white girl captured by Indians as a child, who, upon discovery, is more savage than her abductors"), as well as John Ford’s credit for having directed Red River! Obviously, The Searchers had not yet achieved the status in 1974 that it enjoys today. Our Sunday night campus show that year was my first encounter with the movie. I was bowled over, mesmerized, the earth moved --- and being a nascent 16mm collector, I had to have my own print. The search for The Searchers ended at the High Point, NC (of all places) residence of a well-known film dealer and freebooter who would always greet you with a tumbler of whiskey in hand, be it ten in the morning or five in the afternoon. On this occasion, early in 1975, I had come to reason George out of his 16mm IB Technicolor print of The Searchers, surely the rarest and most desirable treasure I’d ever sought --- the film collector’s equivalent of a Van Gogh. You could always hear George running movies inside as you got out of the car. He used to enjoy tormenting me by putting on something he knew I’d want just prior to my E.T.A. One time it was They Died With Their Boots On. Another occasion found he and his long estranged wife, making one of her infrequent, melancholy visits, watching a Technicolor Mogambo in the den. On the Searchers day, I came forearmed with my trade goods, just like Ethan and Martin when they swapped for Look. My dupes of Mutiny On The Bounty and San Francisco
didn’t impress George much, but after three hours of intense negotiation, we finally closed a deal, which called for both my prints, plus some cash. I was the happiest twenty-year old in the world that day. My Searchers and I roamed the North Carolina wilderness for years afterward, showing up together for Christmas parties, college classroom showings, and even outdoor camping retreats. In those days before video, it was a thrill showing this great movie to so many people who'd not seen or heard of it. The first time I really noticed a heavy Searchers presence on television was when the Atlanta "Superstation" started running it in the late seventies. That satellite feed got it out to cable subscribers all over the country. I’d submit that this is where the larger viewing public really began to notice The Searchers.

That whirlwind John Wayne/Ward Bond tour of theatres for The Searchers opening continues. First Duke gets a "wheel of fortune" from the Detroit Department of Recreation during a western style breakfast, and if he went to the bother of hauling that cumbersome thing along for the rest of the junket, then I’m a three-horned billygoat. Next there’s a plaque from the governor of Illinois. Bet the hotel maids ended up with that as well. This pose of United Detroit Theatres boss Harold Brown posing with Wayne and Bond illustrates one of the cardinal rules in the business --- always be nice to big exhibitors. Here are the two stars in Syracuse --- conferring with a young lady identified as "the drama editor of the leading Polish language newspaper" (no kidding!). Bet rough edges Ward made some crude jokes about that later on when the serious drinking got underway. Ongoing salesmanship for The Searchers includes these suggestions --- a book/comic tie-in, puzzle and coloring contest, and of course, Natalie Wood’s
beauty aids. She must have applied them during all those years she spent living with Scar, cause when Ethan and Marty finally find her, Natalie’s as cute as any prom queen I’ve ever seen. If this is what gals look like after ten years living with the Indians, maybe it’s time we all checked out the Reservation. The amazing clarity of that new DVD held one unexpected discovery for me in that scene where they picked up the rock to reveal the "dead" Indian. No need for Ethan to shoot out his eyes, as this guy’s not ready for any spirit world yet. Note that deep breath he takes when we first see him. Hey, wait a minute --- this makes Ethan a cold-blooded murderer! It’s a whole new revisionist reading of his character! Maybe now I can get Warners to let me do the audio commentary for their next DVD release of the Ultimate, Ultimate Edition of The Searchers.


Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I lived in Portland, Oregon for about half a year in 1973. At a somewhat distant theater, a double feature of The Searchers and The Sundowners was playing. I didn't have a car, was new to Portland, and missed this double-feature, much to my regret.

7:45 PM  

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