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.