George Stevens Fights The Power
It’s a crusade largely forgotten today, but when director George Stevens (below on location with bathing beauties) took on Paramount and NBC for the latter’s distorted, truncated, and segmented broadcast of A Place In The Sun, he was striking a blow for filmmakers appalled by television’s habitual abuse of theatrical motion pictures. The rape of a creative effort was what he called NBC’s March 12, 1966 televised premiere of the 1951 hit release (it earned three million in domestic rentals against negative costs of 2.2 million on initial bow). Stevens had been simmering over disrespect accorded colleague’s films playing NBC’s Saturday Night At The Movies. Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 saw its 120 minute running time swollen to two and a half hours on the network’s October 23, 1965 playdate, thirty of those minutes given over to commercial interruptions increasing as the feature progressed. Most frustrating was directorial impotence when it came to protecting work completed years before. Slicing and dicing to sell ads was an absolutely immoral practice, said DGA president George Sidney, and others stood behind him. It makes me furious. I refuse to watch them on TV anymore, was John Ford’s response after a local broadcast of Young Mr. Lincoln saw the 1939 classic shorn to ribbons. Frank Capra and Fred Zinnemann girded for action, but cooler heads reminded them of original contracts they’d signed allowing studios to do whatever they liked with property owned outright. I checked 60’s TV GUIDES for the Los Angeles market. Broadcasts of syndicated movies were indeed claustrophobic. Most daytime slots were ninety minutes, including a probable twenty, at the least, of these in commercials. One station was running triple features within a three-hour time period. More footage landed on the editor’s floor than likely saw transmission. Stevens was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take this anymore. His February 1966 lawsuit sought to enjoin Paramount and NBC from showing A Place In The Sun. A motion picture should be respected as being more than a tool for selling soap, toothpaste, deodorant, used cars, beer, and the whole gamut. As the network had paid $300,000 for broadcast rights, it was doubtful they’d leave such advertisers out of their Saturday night parade. Stevens cited his original contractual right to edit, cut, and score A Place In the Sun. Defense attorneys said that wouldn’t apply where televised showings were concerned. GS wasn’t the first David to tackle these Goliaths. Otto Preminger tried to protect Anatomy Of A Murder from scissoring. As there was no specific language addressing such in his contract, the court dismissed OP's action in January 1966. Preminger failed to cover clearly the issue of cuts and interruptions, therefore giving Columbia whatever the custom of the industry regarded as comprised by the phrase "television rights." The court upheld the studio’s, and its televising lessors, right to interrupt for commercials and to make minor cuts to accommodate time segment requirements. With Anatomy Of A Murder clocking in at 161 minutes, what was the likelihood of syndicated cuts being "minor" ones?
The Preminger precedent may have encouraged Stevens to offer a compromise. He’d permit A Place In The Sun to be televised providing NBC limit commercials to only two breaks. They refused. A sympathetic judge handed down a temporary order forbidding NBC to alter, adversely affect, or emasculate the artistic quality of the picture so as to destroy or distort materially or substantially the mood, effect, or continuity of the picture. Within these limits, the network could broadcast A Place In The Sun. The battle royal got lots of press. Spokesmen for NBC said viewers were conditioned to segmented programs. Columnists disagreed and spoke for home audiences sick of the unrelenting hard sell and chopped movies. Stevens became something of an industry hero. I’d just turned twelve and was intrigued by NBC’s announcement that A Place In the Sun would be shown without cuts (as indicated in the original TV GUIDE listing shown here). Was there hot content in this old film I’d been unaware of? Clearly this was one not to be missed. As it turned out, the only moment at all suggestive was a night-to-morning dissolve on a windowsill radio implying Monty Clift’s having spent the night with Shelley Winters. Otherwise, it was the same two and a half-hour slog that accompanied Stalag 17 the previous October. According to Stevens angry post-broadcast motion before the court, A Place In the Sun was broken into ten segments with nine commercial interruptions, the average length of drama being twelve minutes and nine seconds before yet more advertising destroyed and distorted the mood, effect, and continuity of the motion picture … as I produced and directed it. NBC seemed to have violated the judge’s directive, and all parties were back to court in June for a reckoning. Stevens counted forty-two commercials during those nine breaks, and what’s more, NBC replaced his careful dissolves with simple fades to black. It’s like taking the cadenza out of a concerto, said the director. This time, unfortunately, there was a different judge hearing the motion, one more inclined toward NBC’s viewpoint.
Some of A Place In the Sun’s artistry was weakened. It just wasn’t substantial or material enough, said the hearing judge. The average television viewer is thick-skinned about commercials and tends to disassociate them from what goes before or after. NBC was found not to have been in contempt of the court’s previous order. It would seem that advertising was sufficiently ingrained into the TV experience as to make it inconceivable that we should do without it. Stevens rightly identified commercial television as the natural enemy of motion pictures, but he was tilting at combined windmills of a studio in receipt of a substantial leasing fee and a network bound on turning a profit for having tendered it. This was big business and no lone complaining director was going to disrupt its flow. Paramount was now supplying most of NBC’s Saturday night movies for the 1965-66 season. It wouldn’t do for these to come with riders attached by disgruntled creative participants, though challenges were increasing from said quarters. William Holden sued Columbia and ABC to enjoin the September 1966 television premiere of The Bridge On The River Kwai, this while Stevens’ suit awaited its final disposition. Holden said giving Kwai away (he was in for an ongoing percentage) would destroy its theatrical value, a theory discounted by the court. The actor was right, of course. Kwai had sixty million viewers that night (far more than ever paid admissions to see it), and did indeed disappear from theatres thereafter. Nothing burned off features like a run on home screens. Paramount felt they’d squeezed the last dollar out of A Place In The Sun. They’d reissued it once in 1959 on a combo with Stalag 17 (trade ad shown here) and that yielded $347,000 in domestic rentals. The company maintained theatres wouldn’t want it again beyond that. Reissue money generally dried up in the sixties as more recent titles began surfacing on television. MGM’s 1966 encore for North By Northwest actually showed a loss after print and advertising costs were factored. If new movies were the equivalent of first editions, then old ones were just so many dog-eared paperbacks as far as studio librarians were concerned.
The trial itself was largely anti-climactic. NBC lawyers divined the mood of the court and took the position that commercials enhanced their broadcast of A Place In the Sun. Folks actually benefited from repeated opportunities to stretch and relieve themselves. This time the judge opted for a marathon screening of three separate versions of Stevens’ feature. First would come the theatrical original, followed by NBC’s offering sans commercials, then concluding with the GS alleged distorted, truncated, and segmented version. One of the witnesses was director John Rich, who would colorfully recall the ordeal in his memoir, Warm Up The Snake. Seems Rich, seated in the cramped screening room with parties, lawyers, and other witnesses, found himself desperate for a relief break of his own after testifying to the necessity of viewing features without interruption. The whole matter was mercifully put to rest with the court awarding George Stevens one dollar in damages upon a finding that Paramount and NBC did indeed truncate his film. It was ruled there was no real harm done however, and the defendant’s technical violation was not sufficiently damaging to Mr. Stevens’ reputation for artistic achievement. A Place In The Sun could continue playing television with commercials, though the judge added that Stevens could file a new suit if a future broadcast caused substantial changes in dramatic content. GS claimed a moral victory, but it was a hollow one. No doubt he’d had a snootful of arguing over A Place In The Sun, but dogging his quarry a little farther might well have hoisted the butchers upon their own petard, for once this feature went into syndication in April 1970, local stations unmindful of the judge’s ruling took scissors to hand and made NBC’s broadcast look like an Academy tribute. I watched A Place In The Sun on numerous occasions during the seventies and eighties. You can bet not all those 122-minutes survived daytime and/or primetime showings. Mostly they were squeezed into two-hour berths. You’d have a splice after hitchhiker Monty is picked up during the credits, then it was destination unknown. We’d rejoin him packing boxes for the Eastmans or already headed for disaster with Shelley Winters. Those fabled Stevens dissolves oft-time survived, if at all, garlanded with ugly cue marks stations habitually punched in. A battered by local programmers 16mm print I later came across would have served nicely as Exhibit A had Stevens elected to wade again into combat with Paramount.