Bonnie and Clyde Turns Forty
There was less celebration over Bonnie and Clyde’s fortieth anniversary than might have been expected. Generational struggles the picture once represented aren’t relevant anymore, as the disapproving establishment circa 1967 is mostly gone now, and victors who claimed cultural dominance are themselves under siege by revisionist-minded youngsters in diapers (or not yet born) when Bonnie and Clyde was released. One of these wrote an interesting piece for The New York Times a few weeks ago, daring to acknowledge merit in Bosley Crowther’s scabrous review which had set off a firestorm in 1967 and led to the critic’s forced retirement after decades with the paper. A.O. Scott speaks of that epochal struggle, but not in fawnish terms agreeable to a sixties generation still flattering themselves for having pulled down a decaying critical hierarchy too mossbound and obtuse to "get" radical chic flicks like Bonnie and Clyde. Least of all would that rebel audience, grayed but clinging tenaciously to their myths, enjoy knowing they were but lemmings enticed to the sea by what I’d call a plain inspired sales plan on Warner Bros’ part. Wait --- weren’t they supposed to have bungled distribution and fought against Warren Beatty’s vision all the way to those cast-off ozoners where Bonnie and Clyde was supposedly dumped? A recent Newsday column addressed the fortieth thus: Warner Bros. thought so little of the film that they released it as a "B" movie, primarily to drive-ins and second-tier theatres. That’s a damning reference to territorial openings common at the time. What more insulting for New York critics and their acolytes than having the season’s pet movie open in Texas and across the South prior to saturation in urban markets far better able to appreciate such ground-breaking artistry? The fact that Bonnie and Clyde went wide first in the South was something camp followers would never get over. To this day, they call it a black mark against Warners.
Once again, it helps to have been there. We got Bonnie and Clyde at the Liberty on September 13, 1967. That was a month before Pauline Kael’s review in The New Yorker, which is supposed to have further stoked the tempest. Down where I lived, Bonnie and Clyde was an unknown quantity. The limited openings in New York had taken place August 13 after a Montreal film festival showing on the fourth of that month. Saturation bookings in the South and Southwest would be the public’s first wide exposure to the film. Warners based much of their campaign on positive reviews Bonnie and Clyde received after the Canada and New York bows. Naysayers like Crowther were more than offset by raves elsewhere. The pressbook was salted with laudatory quotes. Better still for exhibitors was a free package of accessories that normally would have run upwards of ten dollars for rental. I noticed that set of door panels right away when the Liberty started Bonnie and Clyde, and a bullet-hole decal on the back windshield of a parked car out front was reminiscent of ballyhoo they’d done back in 3-D and Cinemascope days. It was only when Colonel Forehand gave me the pressbook that I realized these extras were gratis by courtesy of Warner’s sales force. This wasn’t the first time they’d done a little something extra for showmen. Bookings for Chamber Of Horrors in 1966 included a free Fear Flasher/Horror Horn standee with powered lights and sound effects. There was something distinctly ahead of the curve about Warner campaigns. They’d been trend-setting and showing up the competition for over a year prior to Bonnie and Clyde. I’d submit modern movie advertising began with Warner Bros. Note sassy appeals to seen-it-all patrons encouraged to share a wink with Paul Newman’s Harper in February 1966, among the first camped-up and deliberately sarcastic ad appeals for a straightforward detective thriller. That same month saw Inside Daisy Clover and an almost confrontational tagline (thanks to all the slobs, creeps, and finks …) ideally suited to product demands of fashionably disaffected youth. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (June 1966) could not have been marketed with more precise awareness of what its eventual impact would be. Cunning Warner salesmen had painted targets on the backs of sophisticated moviegoers nationwide by the time Bonnie and Clyde’s campaign hit the drawing board.
A plan this good would still work. They’re young … they’re in love… and they kill people. Is that brilliant or is that brilliant? Anyone claiming Warners botched this sale must have rocks in their head. Here are samples of alternate ads to suggest what I’d consider a major reason for Bonnie and Clyde’s fantastic success. Each are knowingly hip and cutting edge. The pressbook refers to dry wit and violent punch. Advertising delivery on both is what put this show over. Stark contrast is furnished by way of Fox’s conventional effort on behalf of The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a not dissimilar product released within months of Bonnie and Clyde. There was nothing wrong with Roger Corman’s movie, other than its running a losing ($264,000) sack race with an arthritic sales force pushing St. Valentine’s as though it were the second coming of Little Caesar --- and what misguided staffer proposed this tie-in for George Segal’s Yama-Yama Man banjo album? Thick with irony is the fact that Bonnie and Clyde filmmakers so brilliantly utilized the same instrument to augment their soundtrack, as I well remember rushing out to buy that 45 RPM single of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I’m betting the Bonnie and Clyde craze was no accident, despite what others have written. Warners knew it would take off in the South, and that’s why we got it early. For us, it was the second coming of Thunder Road. Dixie territorial openings have a noble history. After all, weren’t we first to get Brides Of Dracula, Ghost and Mr. Chicken and The Wild Bunch? Snobs up north accused (and maintain) Warners abandoned Bonnie and Clyde thusly. The problem the Liberty had was retrieving this show once audience demand tied up available prints. By late Fall, they were exhibitor equivalents of Faberge Eggs. Everybody wanted Bonnie and Clyde, and bear in mind that in those days, four hundred prints in circulation was the norm, as opposed to three to four thousand we see on opening weekends now. It took Colonel Forehand until May 25 the following year to score a return booking.
My fervent embrace of Bonnie and Clyde resulted in two trips to the Liberty during that one-week engagement. I realized early on the price I’d pay in the final third for fun I’d had in the first. That may be why I didn’t revisit the DVD for an anniversary look. Forty years have past, but Estelle Parsons screeching non-stop in the back seat of that blood-soaked car is still a daunting prospect. Bonnie and Clyde may take credit for stoking the revolution, but that’s been over a long time now, and even though their side won, that still doesn’t make it easier to sit through an at-times very unpleasant show. Could this explain so few throwing birthday parties? A handful of sites rose to the challenge of explaining Bonnie and Clyde and why it matters --- or doesn’t. The younger ones come across a little doubtful. They missed going straight from University town showings to march on the Chancellor’s house back in 1967. All that’s left to them is the movie, and how likely is that to pack a wallop equal to what it did four decades back? Much of Bonnie and Clyde’s initial reception was weighted down with politics and social issues largely forgotten now. I wasn’t aware of all that stuff when I was thirteen and seeing it new. That’s just as well, for it compels me less to defend the film now against justified revisionist criticism such as Scott’s in The Times. We’ve all had occasion to accept a film’s greatness on someone else’s authority, and that someone is usually the person who saw it brand new and can summon up memories of impact and emotion we’ll never feel. Bonnie and Clyde will not again deliver the goods as once it did, though I’m glad I was there to flinch with other first-run shocked observers, but what of all those great shows I missed by accident of (too late) birth? Have my perceptions of these been largely shaped by impressions my viewing elders passed down?