When Jesse James Rode Again
Sad fact is, most old movies went to television because few had commercial life beyond initial release. There were exceptions, remarkable ones, like Gone With The Wind/Snow White/King Kong, etc., but most studio output, being bound to years they were made, became less useful in seasons to come. Each company had evergreens, however limited. For Fox, Number One of these was definitely Jesse James, the best overall performer of any library title they sent back into theatres. Many exhibitors kept standing order for Jesse and follow-up, Return Of Frank James, telling 20th exchangers, Whenever there are prints, send them. The company mounted two official revivals --- called Encore Triumphs --- of which first was Jesse's 1946 pairing with Frank, a natural combo, since the latter was a direct sequel and continuation from the first. These yielded a wondrous $1.34 million in domestic rentals, better even than some new releases Fox had that year (and several times what TCF generally realized with oldies). A 1951 Jesse/Frank tandem put another $600,000 in domestic coffers, with more than one exhibitor declaring both were good for at least an every other year's booking. What renewed these money markets was timeless nature of the subject matter ... westerns old were nearly as reliable as same new ... plus fact Jesse and Frank boasted Technicolor, a surest hedge against obsolescence. Helping too was Randolph Scott prominent among Jesse's supporting cast, as he'd become a most trusted western brand after the war. By 1965, both Jesse James and Return Of Frank James were on syndicated television, and paying admission days seemed over, but there would be a final roar for the 1939 favorite, a resounding one even if limited to theatres in our South-land.
Fox had got back in the outlaw business in 1969 via smash receipts from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a sort of flower child western with gentle badmen and bumptious comedy replacing action highlights of JJ and kin. The thing just kept playing ... coming back ... playing again. I considered it then not a patch on rugged The Wild Bunch, True Grit, and others of more traditional bent, and maybe nearby showmen thought so too, for lo and behold there came bookings of long-ago Jesse James, a had-to-see-it-to-believe-it event that sent me packing to Winston-Salem's Carolina Theatre for proof this was real. Indeed it was --- a brand new print in three-strip Technicolor --- and such richness as I'd seldom encounter in theatres. I sat through Jesse James twice to properly burn images onto youthful consciousness and wondered how Butch Cassidy followers might respond to this blast from their parent's past. There was a limited number of prints, as would be revealed later, but I'd follow them through sub-runs, drive-ins, and Saturday plays for what remained of the 70's and life left in these dye-transferred treasures. By 1981 and my last sitting, Jesse James, at least what tatters I saw, was past need of discarding, yet small showmen wouldn't let it go. As late as 1989, a booker friend was still dispatching JJ to cow pasture screens in eastern NC where demand was undiminished, even as last one or two prints became increasingly so. Details of Jesse James' rebirth was for me a curiosity finally satisfied by good friend and former exhibitor Robert Cline (16mm collectors will remember him as proprietor of Thornhill Entertainment), who was very much in the thick of Jesse's comeback and here provides an insider's account of how it all came down ...
For most of the 1970s, I exhibited movies (theatre manager) for ABC SOUTHEASTERN THEATRES, a division of the AMERICAN BROADCASTING COMPANY. Two or three times per year, the brass would book for us what the company referred to as "project pictures." These movies were those which the company could book cheaply (usually a flat rate), develop its own advertising campaign, block-book into geographical areas, and hopefully, drum up enough business to pay bills for that particular week. In the spring of 1972, the "suits" reached way back and decided to make a go with Jesse James, a then thirty-three year old western produced by 20th Century Fox. Anti-hero westerns were a hot commodity at the time due to successes of films such as Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch, and The Professionals, so appeared to be a good choice. It turned out being a very wise choice.
I never knew all the specifics going into the deal between ABC and 20th Century Fox. I can imagine conversation between the two giants when ABC broached the topic of booking Jesse James. Fox: "Do we own that?" ABC: "Yes." Fox: "So you want a print of Jesse James?" ABC: "No, we want multiple prints. We want to play Jesse simultaneously throughout our theatres. Fox: "We probably don't have any prints available."ABC: "Make some." So a deal was struck, as were new prints, probably the first 35mm of Jesse James to be struck since the 1950s (and I'd suspect final ones generated since for theatrical use). ABC Southeastern's ad campaign was designed by Jack Jordan, the advertising director for our division, based in Charlotte, N.C. Jack had a pretty good knowledge of movies and did a nice job cutting and pasting artwork from a number of westerns to create a new look for Jesse (note borrowing of key art with Robert Wagner from The True Story Of Jesse James). Jack knew moviegoers of 1972 had less idea who Tyrone Power, the film's star, was, so he concentrated more on Henry Fonda, the one actor from the 1939 film still active. Then he compared Frank and Jesse to Butch and Sundance, only proclaiming the James boys as being the rowdier outlaw duo (at least until we played the Newman/Redford show again---which we did).
20th Century Fox delivered to ABC four sparkling imbibition Technicolor prints for our engagements. Then the Charlotte bookers set playdates for our respective houses. My theatre (Salisbury, N.C.) was grouped with Winston-Salem, Lexington and High Point. Extensive radio spots were bought through the region. These were pre-iPod days when citizens actually listened to radio. These four towns played Jesse James for one week, after which prints went to other groupings within Southeastern such as Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Greensboro and Burlington. This went on until Jesse James played through the entire circuit (Virginia and both Carolinas). My theatre was charged $100.00 film rental (larger cities were charged $250.00) for the week's booking, this a bargain compared with prevailing rates. My share of the radio campaign was more than I paid for the feature itself. Business-wise, my theatre did pretty well with Jesse, and with that flat rental, certainly performed beyond what we'd have realized with percentage pics far less likely to do comparable business.
By the time warm weather rolled round, Jesse James had played ABC's hardtop circuit, so the company spun it off to our drive-ins. In most cases, they booked Jesse with True Grit. A great combination this was (see ad above), certainly in the South. Film rental for an entire week totaled $50.00 for my Thunderbird Drive-In ($25.00 per picture). This combo kicked off our Spring / Summer outdoor season, and we filled spaces every night on the weekend and did better-than-average business throughout weekdays. Being able to keep all box office receipts (sans the $50.00), we got off to a great start that year. Following ABC's engagements, the prints were available for other theatres around Charlotte to book. At least one of the four prints remained in service until it was literally worn out.
Thanks a million to Robert Cline for these insights and memories of Jesse James' theatrical curtain call.