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Saturday, January 21, 2012


Fox Plants Roots In Roadshow

The First RKO Palace Ad For Their Roadshow Roots Premiere
Twilight Time is out with The Roots Of Heaven on limited edition Blu-Ray ("3000 units"). This 1958 Fox show in Cinemascope/Stereo might as well have been silent-era nitrate for access we've had to decent presentation these fifty-four years since release. How could anyone fairly judge Roots till now? Last night was my first view, having avoided pan/scans and red print survivors from the hoped-for blockbuster on which 20th spent three million  (independent producing Darryl Zanuck said at the time it was closer to four), then saw grievous loss of $2.6 million during a year when all Fox output seemed snake-bit. How many big-studio pics began as roadshows and ended with less than a million in domestic rentals? Roots' failure was 1958's most horrific for Fox, even worse than The Barbarian and The Geisha, and both were directed by John Huston. You'd think such a one-two would have all but run him out of the industry.


Darryl Zanuck had been exec in production charge at 20th since the outfit was mid-30's formed. He left in '56 to produce a Tiffany line of literary adaptations to beat back junk on TV. DFZ was for giving the lost adult audience a reason to dress up and attend movies. The Roots of Heaven dramatized a zealot's effort to rescue African elephants from poachers, and colonial government enablers of same. With initially cast William Holden, it might have worked, but Holden couldn't get Paramount's consent to appear, so Zanuck went with Trevor Howard, scuttling romance needed to juice a long narrative. The second male lead was Errol Flynn, well past screen heroics and re-positioned as a character man for what work was left (Roots his last feature of worth). Flynn's more sad than affecting, the performance a one-note drunk act some critics and many fans figured for a glimpse of real-life Errol.


Laid-Back Errol Flynn Took Africa In Stride --- He'd Visited Rough Corners Of The World Before


"All Seats Reserved" --- But The Policy Wouldn't Last
 Fox proposed to swing for the fence by opening The Roots Of Heaven on two-a-day basis with mail-order tickets. Exhibition hated roadshow policy and told Fox so. The company had wanted same season's Barbarian and The Geisha to play thus, but New York was talked out of it by powerful circuits that could spank hard should distributors persist (showmen argued that John Wayne was too much "a mass audience star" to sell on anything other than a grind basis). The Roots Of Heaven charity-premiered at Broadway's RKO Palace on October 15, 1958, taking the place of long-run The Bridge On The River Kwai, a high-adventure Roots sought to emulate, at least for promoting purposes. The first week was good, advance publicity having lured curiosity seekers, but attendance tumbled quick as word got round of a sluggish first half and overall paucity of action.


Orson Welles Contributed a Colorful Extended Cameo, For Free He Said, "As a Favor" To Pal Darryl Zanuck


Sometimes Even Bad Decisions Can Still Be "Important" Ones
 Darryl Zanuck noted complaints and trimmed The Roots Of Heaven (extant prints are less by a few minutes from what trade reviewers saw). The RKO Palace hung on for five weeks of roadshowing, each frame down from ones before, then went to continuous runs for a sixth, and saw business pick up, if slightly. The change was made to accommodate the holiday crowds who do a great deal of their entertainment buying on impulse, said RKO theatres chief Sol A. Schwartz. By reverting to a continuous policy (and at "popular prices"), we are providing this audience with a flexible time schedule and an opportunity to see "Roots Of Heaven" at the time they want to see it. Trouble was, as word-of-mouth got round, fewer people chose The Roots Of Heaven over competing hits like Gigi and Cinerama's South Seas Adventure (both Broadway two-a-days as well).


Lead Lady Jeanette Greco Gets a Kiss From Trevor Howard as Errol Flynn and Darryl Zanuck Look On Approvingly at RKO Palace Charity Premiere

Fox aimed for Christmas general release and abandonment of hard-ticket policy. The roadshow experiment, what Fox called "a trial balloon," failed for blunt reason that The Roots Of Heaven was not an attraction to justify inflated pricing on reserve seats. Neither was The Barbarian and The Geisha, reason good as any why 20th bent to the will of exhibition and offered both these John Huston letdowns to wider distribution without strings. For himself, Huston pitched in where possible, giving trade interviews amounting to travel lectures minus slides. Hazard of Africa filming enlivened sit-downs --- a few suggested drama behind cameras was far more compelling than what Huston put in front of them. Anyone who went to Africa to make such a movie in the future would be very foolish, said the director. The risks are far too great. Zanuck frankly wished they'd never made the trip, a punk finished movie being small compensation for hellish location ordeal (DFZ: I would never do it again).


Juliette Greco --- By All Accounts, A Good Singer, and in The Roots Of Heaven, Not At All a Bad Actress, Remembered Now as One Of Zanuck's Mistress/Discoveries

Zanuck had been bullish going in. It has majesty written all over it, said he prior to the Palace opening. While it runs two hours, twenty minutes, it is over before you know it. Others disagreed, thus the reel-or-so haircut DFZ gave The Roots Of Heaven. Distributors Complaining About Length Of "Big" Pix, observed Variety about shows which run around two hours and drag in the doing. Age old conflicts between East and West Coasts (selling vs. production)were nothing new, the former pointing up fact that an extra 15 or 20 minutes can add up to a tidy sum when a company puts out 300 or more prints. Maybe it was time to reign in creative indulgence gone overboard. Directors of renown are being given more leeway on the (West) Coast today under the independent setups, and are reluctant to cut their footage, particularly if a lot of work was involved getting it. The trade referred specifically to offenders then on view, including Inn Of The Sixth Happiness, The Big Country, and The Buccaneer, as well as The Roots Of Heaven.


From a roadshow that tanked, Fox let air out of promoting tires with a general release pressbook of only twelve pages and fairly dispirited ones at that. Did they really expect small venues to hold their own "Red Carpet Premieres" as suggested? And it wasn't news that "prestige" meant little in the hinterlands. There was a half-hour production film Zanuck had done in Africa that was network-run by ABC in November, then made available gratis to showmen who could place it on local stations (how many bothered, I don't know --- are there prints of this subject around?). Roots was, not unexpectedly, nixed in the stix. Small towns wanted Tarzan or Bomba pacing jungles, not Trevor Howard on elephant guard duty, and the film's pretentious title gave action fans little to conjure with. Distributors concentrated more and more on urban centers for grosses by 1958, but rural situations were essential to drag product into profit, and The Roots Of Heaven was distinctly not their preferred bill of fare.


Trades by mid-1959 revealed Roots' struggle to crack its first million in domestic rentals, a humiliating figure Fox confirmed, though everyone by then knew it was their biggest loss from what had been a rotten year (The Roots Of Heaven crept over a foreign rentals threshold to $1.1 million). 1963 brought network premiering on NBC --- they'd broadcast nearly the whole of Fox's 50's backlog on Saturday, and later Monday, primetime movies. The Roots Of Heaven was syndicated by September of the same year with forty-five other 20th features just off NBC rotation. Whatever values Huston derived from Africa filming was utterly lost here --- it's no wonder The Roots Of Heaven got so little respect among modern critics. Twilight Time changes all that with a stunner Blu-Ray that merits critical rehab for this neglected show, being but one of a choice series of Fox and Columbia titles they've put back in the spotlight.

10 Comments:

Blogger Michael said...

In his autobiography Huston muses at one point why people always remake things that are really good instead of things that are botched. Specifically, he says he knows someday somebody will remake The Maltese Falcon (which, of course, was an example of him remaking that which was botched), which as far as he was concerned was unimprovable, when what they really ought to do was do a better job than he had with The Roots of Heaven. Evidently he felt that the book-- and surely the subject, of big game hunting-- deserved better.

5:02 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

I have a feeling that the movie isn't nearly as entertaining as your write-up.

It's quite astonishing how Errol Flynn aged so much and so quickly. He's only in his late 40s but could pass for 65.

And is that a young Tommy Lee Jones with the paid-to-look-interested girl reading the book?

9:05 AM  
Anonymous Lionel said...

Well, I love your blog and am in awe at how erudite you are, but this time, I’m a little surprised. Juliette Greco, « by all accounts a good singer » : well, yes, she’s been singing professionally since 1949, and a complete set of her recordings, 21cds, no less, was published back in 2003-2004. She is indeed a great singer.

And « remembered now as one of Zanuck’s mistress/discoveries »…How laughable. Again, she began her career in 1949, was world famous in the fifties, and remains today a « legend » of French song (though I hate that way of saying it): her newest cd was released just yesterday, her autobiography last week, and in early February, she will celebrate her 85th birthday in grand style by giving a series of concerts at the famed « Théâtre du Châtelet » in Paris. Zanuck was just one tiny episode in her personnal and professional life, that has always puzzled her friends and admirers because it’s just so out of character for her.

So a little perspective would have been welcomed here : in her field (singing), she's completely Zanuck's equal, with a prestigious career of more than 60 years and an impressive (quality and quantity) body of work.

But I'll admit with you that she won't be remembered as an actress, though she proved in a few films and tv series that she was good there too !

10:31 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Looks like I need to get with some Juliette Greco appreciation, Lionel. Don't want to belittle JG by any means, as I thought hers was one of the best performances in "The Roots Of Heaven."

Kevin K, that guy in the trade ad does like a very young Tommy Lee Jones, now that you mention it.

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If that was a young Tommy Lee Jones in the trade ad, he was indeed a very mature-looking twelve-year-old which might account for his extremely rugged appearance these days!

4:20 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Your write-up makes me want to track down the Blu-ray. But I'd REALLY love to see that half hour promo item; in all my 16mm collecting days I'd never heard of it (and it would seem there must have been a crap-load of prints floating about.) On the other hand, when Fox released 25 minute condensations of a bunch of there library titles in the 70's, ROOTS OF HEAVEN seemed the most ubiquitous in collecting circles. Came across many prints (and many collectors trying to move a print.) I've head these shortened editions were designed for the airliner and educational markets, although one friend swears they were used as TV fillers too.

9:06 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dave, I once had a print of that condensation of "The Roots Of Heaven." What bugged me about it at the time was the fact there was so little of Errol Flynn, and of course, it looked awful thanks to cropping and color loss.

2:48 PM  
Blogger rockfish said...

I recall seeing personal shots of Eddie Albert visiting with Dr. Schweizter during his time in Africa for this shoot. I own the spanish SD version, released a few years ago. The images looked good but am eager to get more info on the whole production. Can you imagine what a wild time it must have been, with torrential drunks like Flynn, Howard and Huston about, and Welles tossed in for good measure? No doubt there must be some amazing tales, lost in the ether, off that set...

3:54 AM  
Blogger Moviecall said...

While her relationship with Darryl Zanuck probably didn't hurt her chances to appear in 20th Century Fox films, Juliette Greco was an accomplished acress in Europe. In contrast to Bella Darvi,who Zanuck found in a casino in Monte Carlo. He brought her back to the states with the intention of making her a star. However, despite the best acting lessons money could buy she turned out to be a better mistress than an actress. BTW, check out my movie blog at www.moviecall.blogspot.com. It's not quite up to your league but give me time.

8:50 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I checked out your site, Moviecall. Very nice, handsome design, and I really love your banner!

6:58 AM  

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