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Tuesday, July 29, 2008







Trailers --- My Favorite Bite-Sized Treat







Trailer trauma is not a thing unknown to me. The scariest film I ever watched was a three-minute preview for Devil Doll in 1964. I revisited it yesterday on DVD. Still pretty unnerving. Maybe I should have avoided the feature and kept the memory as it was. A lot of movies don’t live up to anticipation their preview creates. Devil Doll didn’t. It couldn’t. The fact it played as a late show only at the Liberty disallowed my going in 1964. That only enhanced the mystique. Maybe we remember best trailers for shows we never get to see. Some were probably better missed. How many great previews are out there for features that turn out lousy? Lots, I’d wager. I remember Colonel Forehand’s son alerting us to the One Million Years BC trailer the day it began playing and that precipitated my going to an otherwise indifferent show just so I could see it. Amazing the secrets concealed within such little rolls of film. Ever see the Rope trailer? There’s an entire opening with the murder victim of the feature’s first scene proposing to his girlfriend on a park bench. That’s the last time she ever saw him alive, and that’s the last time you’ll ever see him alive, says narrator James Stewart. Was this remarkable footage Alfred Hitchcock’s handiwork or some marketer’s idea of novelty selling? Either way, it’s a headstarted backstory Rope viewers got exclusive in 1948. Trailers are often repositories of the unexpected. Deleted footage and alternate takes are common. Humphrey Bogart shoots Conrad Veidt in Casablanca only after the latter draws on him, but the preview has Bogart telling his opponent, Alright, major, you asked for it, before firing on Veidt. Was Rick’s killing of Major Strasser originally committed in cold blood? I wonder if an eleventh hour Code alarm forced the softening of what might have been a much tougher resolution for Casablanca, with this preview glimpse being sole evidence of that intended finish. Look at trailers closely and you’ll see moments otherwise lost and since legendary. Lon Chaney, Jr. wrestled a fairground bear in The Wolf Man. No trace of that remains in the feature, but an anguished close-up of Chaney in the preview was almost certainly lifted from said deleted segment. The best trailers were all about breaking down fourth walls. Picture people addressed, confided in, and cajoled patrons. Stars stepped out of character to assure us of pleasures to be had in their newest vehicle. Watching a string of previews was like walking through a carnival. You never knew what would be up the barker’s sleeve. Sydney Greenstreet beckoned viewers come closer to hear him tell of The Maltese Falcon, a device so effective as to become de rigueur for Greenstreets (Across The Pacific, The Mask Of Dimitrios) cut from similar cloth. Trailers for movies in heavy demand were often unavailable for prints long since abbreviated to guitar picks. By the sixties, getting a preview for Thunder Road out of National Screen Service in Charlotte was as likely as Bob Mitchum coming to your drive-in to personally introduce the show.






Trailers began slow and silent. At first mere glass slides, they were colorful and sometime objects of art in themselves. Pre-talkie salesmanship allowed but for scenes, then titles, and back again. Swirling graphics were in primitive development, and narration to stir patron interest was lacking. Universal tried generating suspense as to what Lon Chaney’s Phantom Of The Opera might look like, though teasing was difficult minus sound and visual flourish. Only a tiny percentage of silent trailers survive, a few representing features that are lost. We see a glimpse of Louise Brooks in The American Venus and wish all the more for eventual recovery of the feature. Warners went whole hog on previews once its Vitaphone took the stage. One (virtually the only) available today is a six-minute tickler for The Jazz Singer, dull in itself but the source of Broadway premiere footage excerpted many times since in documentaries about early sound. Talking discs are extant on a few early deluxe Warner trailers. Sound’s novelty was such that audiences welcomed stars addressing them with a five minute (sometimes more) glimpse of hits forthcoming. Some Vitaphone trailers even merited review in the trade press. As novelty subsided and sound programs filled out, previews returned to manageable length, though Warners pressed hard on behalf of its Busby Berkeley output with mini-extravaganzas to rival the musicals themselves. Dames was promoted with a one-reel subject in which contract player Lyle Talbot guides a studio tour culminating in a pitch for the feature. WB’s deluxe sell for Charge Of The Light Brigade included Michael Curtiz directing the climactic sequence, while the Cain and Mabel preview went behind-the-scenes to show the raising of a sound stage to become the studio’s tallest. These were less trailers then precursors of production shorts to come. None were copyrighted, so many went collecting ways beginning in the seventies when enterprising sellers like Thunderbird, Canterbury, and Steel Valley Films made cottage industry selling them in papers like The Big Reel and in dealer’s rooms. Happy were days I came across previews for shows impossible to find on (legitimately) available 16mm. Some of us can still recite narration memorized from endless home screenings of Universal’s stellar Brides Of Dracula trailer (David Peel As The Baron … Blindingly Handsome, Yet His Kiss Turned Beautiful Girls Into Monsters), and that’s but one of a hundred examples dedicated trailer fans could name.




































Trailers and old time radio are alike in that both are vast and undiscovered repositories of viewing (and listening) pleasure for film fans who think they’ve seen (or heard) everything. We thankfully get previews on a lot of DVD releases now, but think of all those years when these things were essentially lost. The only way you could see trailers was if you scavenged them on 16 or 35mm film. Television seldom used them, even though syndicated packagers sometimes offered previews to buyer stations. Many trailers survive only by virtue of ones printed for TV in the late fifties. Some turning up for the first time on DVD bowled me over. Who knew Dodge City was promoted with extensive Technicolored footage of the 1939 Midwest premiere, and look at all those stars that attended! Any trailer for a Cecil B. DeMille production merits close inspection. Every one is chock filled with on-the-set and candid stuff. That greatest showman on earth sold his 1952 circus epic with a reel-long lecture under the Big Top, while lures for Cleopatra, The Crusades, and The Ten Commandments amount to pocket dramas of struggles DeMille had getting everything just right. Alfred Hitchcock picked up the baton once intros for his mid-fifties TV series caught on. Humorous pitches for North By Northwest, The Birds, and others gave reassurance that well-liked Hitchcock formulae would be on view in theatres as with television, though Vertigo was notable for avoidance of promotional levity on AH’s part. Directors less familiar stepped up to extol virtues of pictures they’d just finished. Raoul Walsh calls a break when Clark Gable notices our presence on the Band Of Angels set, while an on-location recess during A Distant Trumpet allows Walsh to boost leading man Troy Donahue. Such previews were used during initial release, disposed of, then largely forgotten. I’d come across such things and be amazed for having never heard of or read about them. Collecting revealed hidden bounty among basements and storage sheds. Previously discussed Moon Mullins had miles of trailers smuggled out of National Screen. Sometimes he’d cut out a few and give them to me. One was a nitrate Snow White from the 1937 release. Here was Walt Disney seated at a desk with models of all the dwarfs, explaining to us the character of each. The trailer had splices and was less than complete, but for me it was as something dug out of tombs in Egypt. Who knew in the seventies such a thing existed (or imagined that we would someday have it at our DVD disposal)?





































I was drunk on trailers from there. Moon let me have a Cinecolor Invaders From Mars on 35mm and I can still see that weirder than weird green dominating a screen I’d hung before my DeVry semi-portable military surplus chain driven projector. There were also those fulsome narrating voices I came to recognize and treasure. Art Gilmore and Dick Tufeld were favorites (and both are still with us!). Gilmore was the speaking equivalent of a Frank Sinatra. What a mighty instrument was his voice! You hear it especially whenever old Paramount trailers come on. Gilmore even went before cameras to set up a novel preview for The Big Clock in 1948, as shown above. Tufeld would provide great anecdotes for an article on trailers I wrote back in October 1988 for Films In Review magazine (and I’ve still not forgiven them for misidentifying me as James P. McElwee!). Sometimes personnel otherwise occupied on studio lots came over to help with trailers. MGM’s John Nesbitt promoted Man With A Cloak, while Pete Smith lent narration for Adam’s Rib. The studio’s On The Town preview was formatted as a James Fitzpatrick Traveltalk. In fact, Metro had one of the busiest and most dedicated crews for producing trailers, and theirs remained unique and inventive long after others turned preview preparation over to National Screen (here’s an MGM crew coaching Gary Cooper for his pitch on behalf of It’s A Big Country). Sometimes distributors got it right with trailers and wrong for the features. American-International ordered previews for most of its Edgar Allen Poe thrillers from the Technicolor company, thus assuring us of 35mm stock that would never fade, while the movies themselves, including Pit and the Pendulum, Tales Of Terror, etc., were printed on inferior Pathecolor and thus doomed to fade or turn pink within all too short a time. Trailers are still with us, of course, but all of them seem to have emerged from a single blender. Is the word I’m looking for --- generic? In a world where … Must every preview start out with those same nagging words? Watch trailers in succession now and you’ll think it’s a single one playing on a continuing loop. There are happier alternatives on line. TCM has a Media Room with previews aplenty. I’m seeing goodies for the first time ever there. Joe Dante’s Trailers From Hell site offers the bonus of trailers with commentary from a panel of industry fans whose enthusiasm make them joys to listen to. Here’s hoping they’ll get around soon to that immortal Brides Of Dracula preview … Peter Cushing As A Doctor Locked In Mortal Combat With Overwhelming Evil!!
Photo Captions (from top):
A frightful frame from the infamous Devil Doll trailer.
Humphrey Bogart reads The Big Sleep in a trailer he also directed.
In a preview for Revenge Of Frankenstein, Peter Cushing vows he'll get even for what they did to him in Curse!
Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, Myrna Loy, and William Powell march across the Metro lot in a trailer for Libelled Lady.
Powell's seeing double as Philo Vance comes to call on Nick Charles in MGM's preview of The Thin Man.
A dapper Walt Disney tells us about Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs.
Tyrone Power and Randolph Scott tell Jack Benny how lucky he is to be starring in Charley's Aunt.
Dodge City premieres in 1939 and the trailer's there to record it.
Yvonne De Carlo, Clark Gable, and Raoul Walsh take time out to tell us about Band Of Angels.
Alfred Hitchcock begins his Psycho tour, possibly the most famous of all trailers.
Ray Milland and Art Gilmore get together to sell The Big Clock.
Gary Cooper getting set to do a trailer for It's A Big Country.

18 Comments:

Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Thanks for another terrific essay, John.

Some of my favorite trailers, just offhand: OPERATION MAD BALL, in which Ernie Kovacs holds court for five hilarious minutes and tells us practically nothing of the film's content; PSYCHO, in which Alfred Hitchcock gives us a guided tour of the Bates Motel; AIR RAID WARDENS, which is heralded by an opening title promising "Olympian" artistry from the screen's "two greatest romanticists," only to reveal Laurel and Hardy; PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE ("It is safe to state that the grandchildren of the people in this theater will not be born on Earth!"); SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, featuring a dazzling pageant of musical highlights; NEVER A DULL MOMENT, with its ration-conscious "Ooooh! Look what he's got!" superimposed over Harry Ritz and a steak, until Harry tells us, "Don't get excited, folks, it's only a fake"; STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER, with Clifton Webb introducing scenes from the feature; and any number of trailers that employ alternate takes (A CHUMP AT OXFORD, BUCK PRIVATES, THE BANK DICK, GANG BUSTERS, JALOPY, and 1776 come to mind). And in the case of some low-low-budget epics, the trailers look more expensive than the feature: THE LEMON GROVE KIDS MEET THE MONSTERS and THE MADCAPS, to name a couple.

10:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's curious how trailers are almost never restored on DVD. I always put off viewing the trailer until after I've seen the film--they often give away key elements--and it's sometimes a bit jarring when you've just watched a beautifully restored film, and then step back in time to a blurred and scratchy trailer. One of my favorites is for Mad Love--it's fun to see Peter Lorre in character as Peter Lorre, lounging around in an elegant smoking jacket and casually answering the phone to discuss his forthcoming picture.

I think TCM deserves a lot of credit for bringing trailers back. It's great fun to catch them between films. The DVD for the Maltese Falcon has an extra that uses trailers to examine how Bogart was portrayed and sold to movie goers over his career. I think that's a tremendously untapped field--documentaries based on trailers.

Dr. OTR

12:50 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I've always loved trailers, and I really missed them during those years -- as I recall, it was about 1975-90 -- when they seemed to have vanished altogether. I was glad to see them come back, but you're right about them all seeming generic now. The most annoying ploy in trailers right now, and it seems all but universal, is the rapid-succession-of-images-with-a-fast-fade-to-black-in-between-before-they-even-have-a-chance-to-register. I find those trailers visually uncomfortable, and the movies they advertise have already gotten on my bad side.

In the old studio trailers, my favorites are those you mentioned that were cobbled together from unused takes in the studios' editing rooms. In addition to the example you cite from the Casablanca trailer, I remember especially the "You'll wonder what fell on you" exchange between Gregory Peck and sentry Kenneth Tobey in Twelve O'Clock High and Danny Kaye dropping his cornet off the Golden Gate Bridge in The Five Pennies, both of which are distinctly different in the finished film. There was something sort of alternate-universe about those trailers that fascinated me even as a kid.

2:33 PM  
Blogger East Side said...

Old trailers are cool, period. And I can't tell you how many trailers are more fun than the movies they're promoting.

They're still using alternate takes in newer trailers. One that comes to mind is "Bugsy." I remember the scene where Warren Beatty is yelling at someone; something like, "You tried to pull one over on me and Meyer Lansky" along with another name or two. In the preview, he delivers the line perfectly, but in the movie he sounds like he's really out-of-control angry -- a better line reading.

Oh, and Albert Brooks continues the Ernie Kovacs tradition of doing everything but talking about his movies in the trailers -- they're really short subjects.

3:17 PM  
Anonymous Kevin Deany said...

Hi John:

I agree with you that good trailers are a lost art. The sameness to them is staggering. I sure do miss the hyperbole and showmanship of the old trailers. I can’t even remember the last time I saw adjective-filled writing on a trailer, but I would love to experience that again.

One thing that’s been a bit of a revelation while watching trailers of classic movies on DVD is, even back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, studios were every bit as guilty as they are now of giving away too much.

I can’t think of any glaring examples off the top of my head right now, but I remembered being surprised at the trailer for RAWHIDE (1951), which gives away pretty much the entire climax of the movie.

Could it be that with the plethora of studio product back then, and with movies changing two or three times a week, that people didn’t feel gypped if the climax of the movie was given away? Because movie going was so much more prevalent decades ago, with many people going at least once a week to the movies, maybe they thought, “Oh well, we’ll see a new movie in three days. No big deal.”

One current trailer that I did enjoy at my local second-run theater was for the Jerry Seinfed animated comedy BEE MOVIE. It shows Jerry talking about the project, taking a tour of the studio, and even pitching Steven Spielberg about his story. It was amusing enough to make me consider seeing it. Alas, despite the posters in the lobby and the coming attractions trailer, it never did make my second-run theater.

6:13 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I think Kevin may be on to something when he talks about "the plethora of studio product back then." I've noticed the "giveaway" phenomenon in old trailers too -- and somewhere else that's more surprising. I've managed to acquire a couple of bound library volumes of Variety film reviews, covering 1938 to 1948 (if you can only afford two volumes, those are the ones to get), and it's absolutely mind-boggling how often the Variety review reveals every detail of a movie's plot, fade-in to fade-out -- sometimes even divulging the culprit in a murder mystery!

Maybe the quick turnover in movies did allow for that kind of thing -- or maybe the Spoiler Police were less organized and militant then.

12:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too am weary of trailers that use proverbs, like "Sometimes....(clip).....you never know where you're going....(clip).....until you get there!"

2:51 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dr. OTR --- A lot of the trailers they put on DVD are 16mm prints. That's all that's left on a lot of these previews.

Enjoyed everyone's comments and additional trailer titles. For the record, my all-time favorite preview is the 1937 "A Star Is Born". Great the way it builds to Janet Gaynor's scream and ends there.

4:16 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

Good call on mentioning "enthusiasm" in the Trailers from Hell commentaries--that's the word that always comes to my mind. Makes them a lot of fun to watch, though I have to wonder why some of the commentators can't seem to achieve the same level in their own movies.

One thing that's only noticeable in retrospect is that, while a lot of old trailers showed the climax--or climactic moment--without the context of the rest of the movie, you don't know it. That is, yeah, they show the ending, but if you haven't seen the movie, you don't know it's the ending.

11:45 AM  
Blogger shahn said...

I also love the DEVIL DOLL trailer. It's almost an avant-garde film and I had fun playing with it. My screen caps are here:
http://sixmartinis.blogspot.com/2008/02/creative-wipes.html

I'm trying to find out the names of the editors who worked on these gems - does anybody know?

There seems to be little to no documentation that I can find.

10:13 AM  
Anonymous Joe Dante said...

Thanx for the Trailers From Hell plug, John.

Sure wish I could get my hands on that BIG CLOCK trailer! The movie is one of my favorites.

3:11 PM  
Anonymous "r.j." said...

John, Another terrfic post! I've always thought that the true, genuine test of a trailer (whether we've seen the movie a hundred times) is had we BEEN there, would we want to have gone to this, the following week? Often, the promise can be deceptive. Scott MacGillvray is absolutely on-target with his assessment about "Air Raid Wardens": Who put this together, anyway -- Stan Laurel, himself? My money's on Pete Smith. Whoever was resposible, obviously had a very-clear understanding of the Laurel & Hardy-technique. There is not a single word spoken, just wall-to-wall gags, with a terrific swing-score underneath. Suddenly the boys' seem ten-years younger. There are, of course, many other-examples. The trailer for a relatively-obscure Hal Roach comedy called "There Goes My Heart", has narrator Ed Sullivan taking us on a little mini-tour of the Roach lot, including shots of several behind-the-scenes personell(Director Norman McLeod, writers Jack Jevne and Eddie Moran) and has some "gag" footage of Patsy Kelly in the make-up dept. The trailer for "Camille" has a very -intriguing shot of Garbo and Robert Taylor observing their-own reflections in a full-length mirror (ae though who had a better right,right?). Similarly, "A Night at the Opera" contains a really interesting shot of all three-Marxes arm-in-arm, running-loose backstage, that likewise never saw the light of day in the release version. There are, I'm sure, a thousand other examples. I've never seen the one you posted w/ Ty Power, Jack Benny and Randolph Scott, but the setting is probably supposed to be set in Cafe deParis, Fox's own commissary, right on the lot, which I always thought the nicest in-house eatry of any of the studios. I should know, I can remember getting really "bombed" there several-evenings prior to special screenings for nominated-films the studio was pushing! Finally, since I know you always enjoy the "personal reminiscence", John, I'll close this with this-one. I told you that on several-occassions my grandfather would take me to lunch with him at The Masquers in Hollywood, and what a hoot it was, meeting all those "old-timers". Well, there was always a table , a foursome, that never seemed to vary. A group that had lunch and played cards, and reminisced seemingly every afternoon: actors Jack Mullhall, Francis McDonald, director Ray Enright and another gentleman whose name I neither recall nor particularly meant anything to me at the time. But he and my grandfather apparently knew each other well, and would talk. It was later explained to me, this gentleman had for years been in-charge of "cutting the trailers" at WB! R.J.

8:15 AM  
Anonymous Randy said...

re: 'Variety' giving away entire plots in its movie reviews:

Since 'Variety' is aimed primarily at show business insiders and the industry, and wasn't widely available to the general public during Hollywood's golden age, giving away the whole of a film's plot in its reviews probably wasn't the issue it would have been if the reviews had been appearing in mainstream publications.

6:09 PM  
Anonymous "r.j." said...

Randy is 100% correct. In those days, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter were how the people working in the business were kept appraised of who was doing what, what projects were being planned by what studios, how much this or that was grossing, etc. And alot of the items were just "plants" to keep a clients' name active. John, you mentioned "A Star Is Born" -- think of the "Artie Carver" character in the movie and his conversation with March : 'Well, it won't fool anybody, but it will at least remind people you're available". That's what it was all about, in those days before "Entertainment Tonight", etc. My father, and most of the industry, started their day with "The Trades" as they were called, over their morning coffee. Something Dad pointed-out to me early in the game, John, was that reviews could be notoriously un-reliable and were VERY poltical, people or studios who were on the "outs" could get their current releases roundly "panned" irregardless of quality, and the other-way around. If something was a big-budgeted item from a major, it was sure to get a good notice -- those ads around "Oscar Time" were their life-blood! R.J.

9:07 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, I agree anout "Variety" often being a place where reviews could serve purposes other than to fairly evaluate films. Their 1929 coverage of John Gilbert's "His Glorious Night" always seemed to me like a vicious plant to punish the actor for ... who knows what? (pick your Gilbert legend there). No other review at the time approached the vitriol of theirs. A Greenbriar post from July 2006 looked at the subject of Gilbert and "His Glorious Night" ...

http://greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot.com/2006/07/beginning-of-end-for-john-gilbert-i.html

4:59 AM  
Anonymous "r.j." said...

Johnny, Great answer and good example. Who knows? Oh, I think Pop would have had the answer to that: A phone call from guess who? (or one of his underlings!)By the way, since I stopped by here anyhow for a cup of tea, you know Bob Osborne had up until recently a weekly column in the Hollywood Reporter, and truly he represented the real last gasp of the old Hollywood journalistic tradition. R.J.

9:23 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I wish someone would publish a collection of the best of Robert Osborne's Hollywood Reporter columns. There's a lot of unique Hollywood history in many of those past entries.

10:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Thin Man trailers, as well as being amusing, deftly shifts William Powell's identification from Philo Vance to Nick Charles. Trailers today are either pompous or give the game away so completely that I wish we could re-animate the old trailer departments to dull the pain of today's "Coming Attractions".

6:51 AM  

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