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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Lloyd's Of London and Star Manufacture

I got a nice history lesson watching Lloyd's Of London this week. Classic-era Hollywood could be as effective a teacher as entertainer. Might that be partly why the word "classic" applies? Twentieth-Fox's Daryl Zanuck was particularly keen on historical tutelage, but kept his classroom a crowd-pleasing place. The success of a Lloyd's satisfies me that public education taught lots more in the 30's. How else did audiences sit for the saga of an eighteenth-century insurance company? Must have been flattering when motion picture companies figured us brainy enough to get so much past-era drift.

Famous name-dropping in Lloyd's Of London is like a Winchell column published in Merry (and very) Olde England. For all its romance and bodice-ripping, you come away from Lloyd's  somehow ... enriched. Maybe that was secret to its ka-pow success, filling two-a-day seats at $2 admissions. Wags called the studio "18th Century Fox," not necessarily a knock, as who could argue with profits they derived from recreating (and juicing up) past events? We forget mass, and critical, exultation over The House Of Rothschild, a Zanuck-produced 1934 release that set pattern for fact-based pageants to come.

The merger of DFZ and Joseph Schenck's Twentieth-Century Pictures with the old (and ailing) Fox company was tacitly endorsed by entrenched Hollywood, and in fact, execs around town bet on the merger with invested dollars. MGM would extend further courtesy by loaning stars to newly-christened 20th Century Fox. It's how Freddie Bartholomew came to topline Lloyd's Of London. Freddie may have been the only child player to deliver prestige with his name, having been associated up to then with literary adaptation of a pedigree that would commend itself to educated patronage. All Lloyd's Of London lacked was George Arliss (busy elsewhere on the Fox lot).

Most inspired was casting of newcomer Tyrone Power, Jr. as grown-up Bartholomew, and from thirty-five or so minutes in, the dominant lead. Power came to Lloyd's from small parts since 1932. He'd made good impression in Girl's Dormitory for Fox a few months previous, so using him here wasn't quite the gamble it appeared. Fox could look to, as inspiration, the truly overnight success of Warners' Errol Flynn a year earlier, a promoting blueprint usable to launch Power. Lloyd's Of London's pressbook posits Power's stardom as a fait accompli, this before audiences beyond east-west coast premieres even had a look at him.

Una to Freddie: When You Speak Of This In Future Years ... And You Will ... Be Kind.

The story told, compatible with up-from-obscurity Hollywood star-making, was that director Henry King saw a test of Tyrone Power and insisted he be cast rather than front-office choice Don Ameche. Audiences liked believing they were responsible for career ascensions, but here was one time a studio openly took choice upon itself to simply tell a public, Here is your star arrival for 1937. Observant fans didn't ordinarily like being manipulated, had rebuffed past tries (Anna Sten a notorious example), but here goods tendered were in accord, and perfectly so, with patron desire.

Broadway's Premiere at the Astor Theatre

Power took the same learning curve as had Flynn, his performance and persona forming as Lloyd's Of London itself progressed (did they shoot in sequence?). Audiences rightly saw Ty as green, and maybe embraced him the more for it. A brand new star was exciting, being news to travel fastest through beauty salons, over drug counters, and deepest perhaps in hallways at school. Lloyd's Of London had premieres at Broadway's Astor Theatre and The Carthay Circle in Hollywood, at a time when such were truly gala events. Great depression downturn was far enough back of the industry to enable modified roadshow policy with regards showiest product, thus Lloyd's Of London played twice a day at these venues with seats at $2 tops. This got a persuasive message out that Lloyd's Of London was product to reckon with.

Small towns down the distribution line might wait a year for Lloyd's Of London to reach them, but appetite whetted by star-studded openings and continual fan magazine drumbeat made delay bearable. By the time many saw Lloyd's Of London, Tyrone Power had made at least two further starring vehicles. It was these smaller pics that benefited most from money poured upon Lloyd's Of London (its negative cost $873K). Tyrone Power could not have laid stardom's foundation in a Second Honeymoon or Love Is News. These were, in a sense, opportunistic crows that would feed off bounty of Lloyd's Of London.

Fox had also seen after an international market with Lloyd's, its subject matter a UK/Euro lure, and like many of the company's historicals, realized foreign grosses nearly the equal of what it took domestically. A worldwide $2.1 million put Lloyd's among highest scoring for 20th's 1936-37 season, although Shirley Temple vehicles, done by the company for far less money, routinely out-performed all else tendered by Fox, even epic-styled Lloyd's. The latter turns up on TCM from time to time. Fox must have done a re-master, because it looks terrific. I assume, or hope, that 20th's On-Demand DVD program will have it out before long.


Anonymous Kevin K. said...

When I was growing up, Lloyd's of London was the oldest movie that one of the local stations ran regularly -- and I still haven't seen it.

For what it's worth, one of my college professors served in the same platoon with Tyrone Power during WW II, and assured me he saw no sign of the latter's alleged sexual preferences.

3:52 PM  
Anonymous Dbenson said...

Strange how an early 30's film set in the 1700s or 1800s can feel almost like a documentary, while far more ambitious efforts from the 50s give off a vibe of when they were made. Anachronisms appear in every era's films, but my guess is that modern audiences don't recognize, say, a 1932 hair style on Marie Antoinette.

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Bob said...

I think one of the key factors Lloyds is so successful is the contribution of George Sanders.....

10:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tyrone looked like a girl in most of those photos. Beautiful man but I liked him best in the 40's after he'd aged a bit. Interesting that they could get $2 a head for *any* movie during the depression. Tastes really change over the years; as much as I love old movies, I simply cannot bring myself to invest a couple of hours watching this one.

3:04 PM  
Anonymous I was an extra in Zombie Nightmare said...

As an liability insurance underwriter for over 40 years, I can attest to the fact that the story isn't all that factual but it remains an entertaining feature.

6:51 PM  
Blogger iarla said...

watched this snuggled up in an armchair by the fireside as a child on a sunday afternoon, when, presumably like thousands of other children in the 30's and for years after, i became entranced by the saga involving freddie bartholomew in the lenghty prologue. i wonder how many of us children felt short shrift when freddie morphed into tyrone power and the plot took a less interesting grown up turn? And, isnt it interesting how victorian attitudes towards child cruelty, orphan abandonment etc persisted into crowd pleasing hollwood films of the thirties, especially at Fox, the home of "lloyds" and shirley temple, too? una o'connor deserves a write up, she popped up unexpectedly in a mild stanwyck comedy i caught last night, "christmas in connecticut", and the night before i'd seen madeline carroll in "bahama passage" - beautiful technicolor in that one!

6:01 PM  

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