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Monday, June 29, 2009

Exhibition's Sweet Smell Acid Bath

1957 Manhattan in Sweet Smell Of Success was moviegoing Heaven from where I sit in 2009. Watching again this week (on MGM-HD) satisfied me that Sidney and J.J. had lives of Riley amongst clubs, theatres, and an overall seedy elegance long since no more. Never has New York looked so good on film. The opening credits show delivery trucks dropping newspapers along corners and back of them are theatre marquees at night. One features Seven Wonders Of The World in Cinerama. I wondered why Falco concerned himself with placement in Hunsecker’s column when he could be watching that … at least three times in a week … as I would. Newsreel theatres were in evidence when Sweet Smell was made (the Trans-Lux is visible during several shots). Warners was at the point of abandoning their headline service, but Universal-International still had current events on screens. So did Fox and Metro (Paramount bailed in 1957). Imagine going into a theatre to watch news. And speaking of dailies, did people really hover about stands waiting for the morning edition to arrive as Sidney does? What a world --- back when newspapers mattered. I noted that he left his (early breakfast?) hot dog unattended to score the morning Chronicle, coming back to find it unmolested (you can’t say Sweet Smell’s altogether cynical). They should have given Tony Curtis an Academy Award for this. He’s somewhere beyond great. Falco apparently doesn’t sleep, changing suits between night shifts and not once using a bed back of his office. The dressing table bottle of Alka-Seltzer was a touch I noted for the first time thanks to high-definition. A really priceless sequence later on reminded me of screen and vaudeville’s coexistence well into the fifties. Sidney visits a comic backstage who’s waiting out a movie before his next turn, this the lot of many a performer doing six and seven appearances a day between unspooling reels. Big names pulled time propping up features from nine or ten AM to midnight. Live acts were reason to attend for a lot of patrons, as here where Esther Williams and comedian Wally Brown offered incentive likely more compelling than weak screen sister Always Together at Chicago’s State Lake Theatre.

Another Sweet Smell plus is music by the Chico Hamilton Quintet. I hadn’t investigated a soundtrack previous, but should have known there’d be one. It looks and sounds good (there’s samples you can play at Amazon’s listing). Jazzy scores had been around by 1957, but few so melancholic. That’s a word that might describe showmen after they got a look at Sweet Smell. They’d figured on another Trapeze, a sockeroo Lancaster and Curtis bestowed the year before. Whether they liked it or not, these were action stars and their public was frankly confused at notions of Burt and Tony lingering over telephones and furtive passing of notes. Exhibitors wondered why they’d spend audience capital on this sort of downer. Lancaster backed chamber pieces that hit like Marty but mostly appeared onscreen in work more conventional (Gunfight At The OK Corral was the same year). To don owlish spectacles and be photographed so harshly made merchandise tough to sell. Sweet Smell posters read The Picture That Will Never Be Forgiven --- Or Forgotten. The first part was certainly true for theatres playing it. The second would manifest within a decade when critics and buffs began discovering it. Sweet Smell was a problem you couldn’t solve with ads and posters. Just what in blazes was this thing about? A hit’s most saleable points take few words to put across. This one needed more, plus a sophisticated audience to decode media-speak and acid drippings not necessarily recognized as such by hick viewers. Premiering in New York was a foregone conclusion. United Artists announced 255 key dates to open July 4 weekend following the world bow at Manhattan’s Loew’s State on June 27, 1957. Was the saturation bid an effort to get Sweet Smell in and out before word-of-mouth killed it off?

Either way, it died. Burt Lancaster and Barbara Nichols (both shown here with showmen and interviewers) spent July thumping Sweet Smell. Lancaster’s company had produced, so the star put forth promotional effort above and beyond calls of studio duty. Otherwise, it was left to United Artists to cobble whatever mass appeal this sour persimmon might generate. A tie-in with Topp’s Bubble Gum (photos of Burt and a pitch for the film in each pack) were among measures fairly desperate --- that plus ad cards perfumed and designed for placement in pocketbooks and lingerie drawers (!). Ads titillated with a brother/sister could-be-incest angle and promise of a fistic set-to between Burt and Tony, this being more along lines folks expected (who’d be all the more disappointed when they didn’t get it). Pete Harrison spoke for exhibition when he lauded content, but added that reception in small towns would be problematical. The counterfeit currency gimmick supplied by the pressbook was one I used years later for a University run, printing several hundred bills and spreading them around campus (we even set up a jar in Student Commons labeled Free Money). Our audience was actually pretty good, probably better than a lot of houses pulled during Summer 1957. UA’s beating could actually have been worse, as Sweet Smell took $1.422 million in domestic rentals. Foreign was harsher with only $848,000, but few could have expected this sort of material to perform overseas (what did they know or care of press agents and Broadway columnists?). There were fewer bookings (9,322) than customary for a major star offering. Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp (in Gunfight At The OK Corral) burned up the woods giving crowds exactly what they wanted that summer, and was rewarded with four million in domestic rentals for doing so. Now it’s Sweet Smell Of Success that’s the permanent classic, its brilliant dialogue an inspiration for modern writers and viewers addressing same. I’ve read several remarkable essays just this morning extolling the greatness of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster’s then-folly. If there are rewards in posterity for underappreciated films, this one more than collects. Tony Curtis has fortunately lived long enough to dine out on it for several decades. I could kick myself for meeting Martin Milner at a Courts autograph show and not mentioning Sweet Smell, instead honing on the Route 66 episode Lizard Leg’s and Owlet’s Wings and Springfield Rifle. He was responsive enough about these. Has anyone interviewed Milner at length? My Web search turned up nothing so far.


Blogger Gunnar and Sherry said...

Great post. I love that movie. Great Elmer Berstein soundtrack too.

2:02 PM  
Anonymous Steven Smith said...

Excellent piece (as usual)- and yes, the new HD transfer is a revelation. I almost felt I could walk onto that theater backstage with J.J. and Sidney SHERLOCK JR. style.

4:54 PM  
Blogger Samuel Wilson said...

Lancaster as a star-producer deserves credit for blazing a trail that enabled more actors to escape typecasting by playing a remarkable variety of roles. Wyatt Earp and this monster in the same year was quite a feat in those days.

10:43 PM  
Anonymous East Side said...

"Sweet Smell of Success" made my wife extremely uncomfortable -- a sure sign of the movie's success!

7:16 PM  

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