The Thinking Man's Exploitation Shockers --- Part One
The frustrated career of Val Lewton was both inspiration and cautionary fable for Hollywood insiders long before horror fans and writers began taking up his cause in the late sixties. No better evidence exists than 1952’s The Bad and The Beautiful, shooting within a year of Lewton’s death and basing its protagonist’s rise specifically, if not accurately, on Cat People lore and a "B" producer scavenging the lot for props to make his films. Industry folk must have talked lots about Lewton and why he rose and fell. There were few better object lessons on the peril of seeking art over commerce, nor a more effective argument favoring team play and sucking up to supervisors when necessary. Val Lewton held on to integrity, but little else. He was a talent to admire, but forget about emulating him if you wanted a future in movies. Sad stories like his were best told in eulogies. Those nine chillers he made (but were they really?) for RKO became scholarship bait long before we embraced (seriously) other Hollywood horrors. Like so many hard-luck cases, Lewton achieved immortality too late to do him any good (an early death at forty-six saw to that), but at least his family enjoyed bows he didn’t live to take. My recollection is of Carlos Clarens getting there first, though An Illustrated History Of The Horror Film was merely the initial Lewton celebration of a second wave starting in 1967. Bigger names recognized him earlier, but I wonder if James Agee and Manny Farber’s laudatory reviews during the forties benefited Lewton, or helped in bringing him down at RKO. I think that few people in Hollywood show in their work that they know or care half as much about movies or human beings as he does, said Agee. He and others praised Lewton as the remarkable exception to prevailing philistine standards. Former boss David O. Selznick may have done more harm than good when his post-Cat People congratulatory wire crossed RKO chief Charles Koerner’s desk. (It) is in every way a much better picture than ninety percent of the "A" product that I have seen in recent months. Other studios hopefully have extended such opportunities to would-be producers by the score without getting a result such as you have delivered at the outset. We know corporate intrigues and politics proved Lewton’s undoing. Were jealousies inflamed by these and other plaudits? Koerner was a supporter, but lesser RKO brass sniffed "too arty" when Lewton’s name and accomplishments entered commissary chat. The fact he kept to himself and avoided studio camaraderie raised hackles further (Lewton disliked shaking hands --- imagine how that played among vice presidents). Lesser talent had but to wait for things to go south. In Lewton’s case, that wouldn’t take very long.
The golfing party is here for a reason. These are the men who controlled Val Lewton’s fate at RKO. We read about denizens of the front office like Charles Koerner (he having lately expelled Orson Welles) --- that’s him on the right, flanked from the left by N. Peter Rathvon (RKO president), Robert Woolf (New York district manager), and Ned Depinet (RKO Radio Pictures president). Koerner was vice-president in charge of studio production, and on this 1942 occasion they were competing in the studio’s eighth annual golf tournament. Large decisions were doubtlessly made on those links. Perhaps they resolved to give Welles the heave around third green, and by fourth agreed to hire Lewton. Anyway, line-producing underlings weren’t invited to such matches. Lewton would be assigned to dream up stories for pre-fab titles these guys had consumer tested at a ceiling price of $150,000 each. Cat People initiated the series of budget horrors. It became what they called in those days a sleeper. Writer DeWitt Bodeen once estimated a four million dollar gross. Modern historians took him up on that tall tale, and further credited this modest show with saving RKO itself --- their biggest hit of that period (no, those would be Once Upon A Honeymoon, Hitler’s Children, and Mr. Lucky). Tempting to propagate such myths when we admire the man and his films so much. Cat People did earn $360,000 in domestic rentals. $175,000 came back from foreign. There was $183,000 in profit, an excellent return for a "B" (comparable The Falcon In Danger ended $91,000 in the black, while The Saint Meets The Tiger actually lost $25,000). You could only realize so much on pictures that generally played the bottom of tandem bills. Cat People opened on Broadway as a single, though the Rialto Theatre was not otherwise the sort of venue majors sought for prestige bookings. With a modest 600 seats and no balcony, the Rialto prided itself on ballyhoo techniques otherwise abandoned on the Great White Way. Front displays looked like Grand Guignol. Thriller engagements called for all-out chamber of horror enticement for passer-bys willing to enter and be horrified. Owner and operator Arthur Mayer was a well-respected industry veteran whose career dated back to silents. He thrived on lowdown exploitation. Having shepherded Paramount’s nationwide Panther Woman search a decade before (for Island Of Lost Souls), he knew how to dress a marquee. Mayer balked at the expense of print ads in The New York Times. With my limited budget, I had little money to spend on newspaper advertising, so I was forced to use the theatre front and the lobby for my major shilling. Replacing marble busts and objects of art with gargoyles and displays of torture instruments, Mayer proudly trumpeted the Rialto’s strictly masculine fare policy, reflecting his wish to satisfy the ancient and unquenchable male thirst for mystery, menace and manslaughter. Cat People's entrance shown here was the handiwork of his creative staff.
Critics enjoyed slumming at the Rialto. The theatre became a running joke in their columns. Like a flower of evil, the Rialto Theatre has endeared itself to a little coterie of necrophiles that haunt the area as a perfect rendezvous for Witches’ Sabbath and Walpurgis Eve celebrations. Admissions were the cheapest around for first runs. Cat People played in December of 1942 for a quarter before noon, forty cents to 5:00, and sixty-five cents to closing. Sometimes they didn’t clear house till four in the morning. You could even smoke in either of two side sections in the auditorium. Pretty punk for a Broadway engagement, but RKO could at least boast of having opened there when time came to sell Cat People among block-books to independent exhibitors. Larger audiences for Val Lewton’s understated chiller found it bringing up the rear behind big ticket crowd-pleasers like Springtime In The Rockies, with which Cat People played in multiple New York City theatres on the RKO circuit (as shown here) starting January 7. 1943. Though Betty Grable’s musical is barely remembered today, this was the kind of show that actually got those four million dollar grosses (in fact, Springtime In The Rockies took 4.4 million in worldwide rentals, making its estimated gross nearly twice that). The Hollywood host for Cat People was the Hawaii Theatre, whose boxoffice (as shown) was redressed with a sign reading Feed The Kitty Here. A presumably uncomfortable ticket seller sat inside an enormous cat head that covered the window, sliding both ducats and change along a feline "tongue" that draped toward the sidewalk. Cat People shared its first LA run with Warner’s The Gorilla Man, as shown in the above snapshot taken in late 1942. Despite critic’s applause, Val Lewton got little in the way of recognition from bosses at RKO. His compensation remained minimal. Koerner tossed a wet blanket when Lewton reminded him of Cat People’s success. The only people who saw that film were negroes and defense workers, he said. All RKO wanted from the horror unit was horror movies, preferably conventional ones. Fortunately for Lewton, I Walked With A Zombie, his second for RKO, maintained Cat People profits and extended his creative autonomy.
In the picture, the nurse walked with a zombie. The patrons walked out of the theatre, and the exhibitor walked around in circles trying to think what to do to make up for the loss. This was O.E. Simon’s trenchant commentary that followed his Menno, South Dakota booking of Val Lewton’s follow-up to Cat People. Was the producer determined to work against horror expectations as his series went on? I Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man suggested he was. People said they didn't understand this so-called horror picture (The Leopard Man). Business was light (Dewey, Oklahoma’s Paramount Theatre). Zombie’s negative cost crept $6,000 beyond the $150,000 limit RKO had set, and its worldwide rentals of $496,000 slipped below those of Cat People, though profits of $181,000 insulated Lewton for the present. He was now getting press recognition as a Merchant Of Menace, Sultan Of Shock, whatever lamebrain tag they chose to hang on him. Profilers wondered what made those chillers tick. Lewton dismissed the recipe as pure formula. The last thing this producer needed was a perception he took horror movies seriously. Ingredients required were plenty of "dark patches" and three bumps per show --- easy as plugging in a waffle iron so it would seem, though Lewton's creative team knew well the efforts he’d made to distinguish his thrillers from the rest. Always the last RKO employee to leave the lot at night, Lewton assumed final responsibility for every script page going before a camera. As with mentor Selznick, each set-up bore Lewton’s signature. Despite disappointment his films sometimes yield on first viewing, hanged if they don’t mesmerize upon further acquaintance. The problem in 1943 was impatience on the part of showmen accustomed to brightly-lit mummies and wolfmen chasing girls up trees. I Walked With A Zombie transplanted Jane Eyre to the tropics, just months before Fox did the latter with "A" money and bigger stars. The Leopard Man was no such thing, being devoid of man-into-leopard technics, and in fact, those apparent cat murders were a red herring for human villainy. Lewton kept snatching rugs out from under horror fans, and numbers were beginning to reflect their awareness of same. The Leopard Man cost $155,000. Domestic rentals were $303,000, with foreign $100,000. Final profits of $104,000 represented a steep fall from the first two entries. The Lewtons were now running even with, if not behind, the Falcon series. A serious, if inevitable, drop-off would begin with The Seventh Victim. Soon it would become a challenge keeping up with Tim Holt.