Fox's Medicine Goes Down
Here was the tightrope 20th walked when time came to market Bigger Than Life: They'd done a melodrama full-out on the serious subject of prescription drug abuse and had to, that is, had to, avoid appearance of pointing fingers at the medical community. Initial trade ad question How Did They Dare To Make It? could be answered thus ... Very cautiously. Fox had tried and profited with social themes before. Their Snake Pit was one patrons entered to ultimate reward of five million on worldwide rentals, so drawing from similar wells seemed a (near) sure thing. James Mason's Bigger Than Life ordeal would surely compel as did Olivia De Havilland's (or so ads promised), for hot topics were evergreen and recent The Man With The Golden Arm ($5.9 million worldwide) proved drugs were potent when dispensed out of ticket windows. 20th merchandisers began heating potatoes in early July 1956 with an early sneak before drug industry executives, who, expectedly, disapproved (the film could produce horror enough in the average person to make a lasting impression, one said). All this was duly reported in Newsweek and The New York Herald Tribune, from which Fox ran with quotes that served their campaign's purpose. A "controversy," even if largely manufactured, was thus in play for weeks leading up to Bigger Than Life's August 1 open. Lots of space pro and con in the papers is creating a curiosity and "want-to-see' attitude amongst the public, said Motion Picture Exhibitor, even as insiders were likely in on truth of Fox having dampened their fuse by trimming Bigger Than Life of content likely to ruffle medical establishment feathers.
Trade ads from the start were determined to let doctors off the hook. I warned him, says a masked medico dominating art, One Pill Too Many and You Can't Stop! The AMA had been on ground floor as Bigger Than Life went before cameras and made sure interests were protected. The last thing they needed was a public roused over careless pill dispensing. Fox meantime bent over and took the shot. Well, they weren't making a documentary after all, and could still take bows for courageous filmmaking even as AMA reps applied blue pencil to Bigger Than Life's script. Orderly run-up to premiere saw one of the largest (radio and television) saturation campaigns for a 20th-Century-Fox picture (Motion Picture Herald), so the company wasn't napping as to promotion, but who could have anticipated producer/star James Mason firing off with both barrels to trade and anyone who'd listen over his dissatisfaction with TCF and how they'd timidly handled Bigger Than Life from its outset? The studios appease pressure groups large and small, declared the actor in a frank assessment of his not altogether happy producing experience at 20th. He accused the latter of bowing too easily to AMA watchdogs, a group Mason would be less inclined to satisfy given greater control of the project. He went on to state the obvious that had he made Bigger Than Life as an independent producer, there'd have been less studio inhibitions to contend with and perhaps heavy subject matter could have been leavened with humor.
Mason and Fox weren't alone in courting controversy. On the same day JM appeared for press questioning, producer Julian Blaustein was down the street at a luncheon and screening for Storm Center, Columbia's drama about civil liberties and book banning that had been slammed by the Catholic Legion of Decency. Blaustein called that censorship and contrary to American principles of freedom of thought and expression (the stir didn't help --- Storm Center collected only $196,000 in domestic rentals). For his part, James Mason emphasized the fact that Bigger Than Life had received a Code seal, while Otto Preminger's The Man With The Golden Arm, denied the same PCA approval, went out anyway through United Artists, a situation he called absurd. Besides, he added, Bigger Than Life wasn't really about drug addiction per se, despite Fox advertising to that effect. Mason had been told that "New York" controlled all aspects of selling, a fact leading him to conclude that the studio itself was dominated by east coast overseers. Fox was reliant upon the pre-sold property, be it a play or best-seller, according to the actor/producer: The major studios should pick controversial subjects to combat TV ... be forthright and aggressive even if your budget is low. The way Mason saw it, the film industry is now nearly a year behind other mediums of expression, including newsreels, TV, and even novels, in the use of forthright and timely subjects. Motion Picture Exhibitor's New York columnist Mel Konecoff noted Mason's desire, in spite of expressed criticisms, to become a sought-after producer and director (in fact, JM hoped to follow Bigger Than Life with a Jane Eyre remake for Fox, but this fell through when proposed co-star Audrey Hepburn proved unavailable). Konecoff cautioned Mason that giving answers like the foregoing (at the press reception) is one way not to reach that status (of producer/director) at 20th Fox, unless (the) film makes money, that is. Unfortunately for Mason and his studio partner, Bigger Than Life would end up taking the lowest domestic rentals ($524,000) of any Fox release in 1956.
Best efforts were made to sell the film. Trade ads ran weekly for a month ahead of release. Fox was confident enough to start with limited engagements, hoping word-of-mouth would excite interest in Bigger Than Life's daring subject (TCF to exhibitors: If you want it, and can handle it, contact your 20th branch manager immediately). Washington's home office hosted a special preview for invited cabinet officers, members of the Senate and the House Of Representatives, plus top-ranking officials of the public health and welfare agencies. This was, after all, a vital subject, and worthy of serious national dialogue. By mid-September and widening play-off, The Motion Picture Herald issued fair warning in its Selling Approach column: A picture for adults only --- not for drive-ins. MPH's review was otherwise positive, even as it referred to Bigger Than Life as a question mark at the boxoffice ... there is virtually no comic relief and the only name of any significance is Mason's. In fact, Fox was pushing director Nicholas Ray as much as any cast member. He'd been responsible for the previous year's Rebel Without a Cause, a hit still racking numbers Bigger Than Life wouldn't approach. Boxoffice magazine's Barometer told the dispiriting story of the latter's wicket reception. Bigger Than Life averaged just eighty-eight percent of average receipts for the week of September 29. November and December saw it maintaining at ninety-six percent. These figures were far below Fox's other season offerings, including The King and I (eventual profit: $1.6 million), Bus Stop ($322,000), and The Last Wagon ($219,000). Mason was right as to these being "safe" properties. Both The King and I and Bus Stop were indeed pre-sold and hot off stage successes.
Bigger Than Life would end with a loss of $875,000. Why it failed is anyone's guess. Was James Mason a less captivating addict than Frank Sinatra? --- and if patrons must descend into snake pits, wouldn't Olivia DeHavilland's be more congenial? Everyone's latter-day punching bag Bosley Crowther, then critic for The New York Times, might have hit on an essential problem. In any case, his review read like one trades might have posited: ... to ask a paying audience to sit for almost an hour and watch somebody (Mr. Mason) go through a painfully slow routine of becoming intoxicated from taking too much cortisone is adding a tax of tedium to the price of admission. You expect something more for your money than a little flurry of violence at the end. Crowther spoke of good reason to get inpatient with the whole dismal thing. His reservations were seconded by exhibitors, for whom Moz Burles of the Canyon Theatre in Bingen, Washington summed up: These self-produced and directed efforts by falling stars are a real booking problem. Admittedly, the theme of the picture should be made known to all people, but since the inception of the movies, the fans just don't like to be educated or lectured to. They spend their money --- they hope for an evening's entertainment. Fox brass must have been perplexed. They hadn't hit such walls with 40's social documents, after all. Those were profitable. The answer may have been Darryl Zanuck's not being there to shepherd Bigger Than Life. He'd departed 20th's lot to produce independently, leaving Buddy Adler in charge, and Adler had not Zanuck's story and editing capability. Whatever Bigger Than Life's problem, the public smelled burnt meat and stayed away accordingly. 20th would much later have a payday of sorts when it licensed Bigger Than Life for a Blu-Ray Criterion release. That disc, with its flurry of extras, confirms the film's status as a noble 1956 failure turned ongoing cult success.
Check out an earlier Greenbriar Bigger Than Life post here.